Proposal for a new course: 1771: A Year in the Life of the British Empire

Since pedagogy is one of our ongoing topics here, I thought people might be interested in the course I just proposed to teach in ’07-’08, an advanced senior-level undergrad seminar (enrollment 20) based on my current book project, a literary history of the year 1771, as this was reflected in anglophone writings produced in 5 or 6 major cities of the British empire.

I am pitching the course at the undergrad rather than the grad level because I want to whittle down the very large number of potential readings to a manageable size; I’m hoping that this will help me clarify my own thoughts about the book.

I’ve also decided that theory per se will be less important than historical contextualization, largely because the majority of my students will not be headed for grad school, and I want to encourage independent research in their contextualization projects, rather than leading them through a host of difficult theoretical texts. I’m also experimenting this time round with biographies, to see what contextual information undergrads can pick up from a few exemplary lives. There are additional pedagogical and institutional dimensions to this course, which revolve around the library and my department’s requirements, but I won’t go into that right now.

I’ve left off the Additional Readings section, because I’m still unsure what I want to put in there: Bailyn and Michael Warner, certainly, but some straight political and intellectual history, along with a limited amount of literary criticism. I’d be grateful if others had suggestions about additional secondary or even primary readings.

One final issue I’d like to discuss with others at some point is the future of the author- or genre-oriented course. I feel that much of my research nowadays is really organized around very different problems than “the novel in the 18c” or “Laurence Sterne’s contribution to the 18c novel,” worthy topics that I was trained to discuss as a graduate student, but which seem less urgent to me now. As a result of this split between my research and teaching, I wanted a course where, for example, the category of “region” was at least as important as “genre,” and helped to organize both kinds of scholarly activities. My assumption is that new, or at least different paradigms of knowledge demand different paradigms of teaching, though I find that this is rarely the case, even in elite institutions. We just substitute one form of survey for another, etc. etc.

So, for better or worse, this course represents my attempt to start thinking differently by teaching differently.

Best wishes,



1771: A Year in the Life of the British Empire

Course Description: This course is an outgrowth of ongoing research for my current book project, 1771: A Geography of Feeling, which analyzes the diverse genres of Anglophone writing produced during a single year in the British empire. For example, 1771 saw the publication of Smollett’s and Mackenzie’s Humphry Clinker and the Man of Feeling, Johnson’s Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting the Falkland Islands, Percy’s Hermit of Warkworth, the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Benezet’s Historical Account of Guinea, and Wheatley’s Elegiac Poem on the Death of Whitefield. My book attempts to answer two questions: first, how might we meaningfully relate these disparate authors, works, and genres to one another; and second, how might we use these relations to understand a distinct historical moment that we label, a little arbitrarily, “1771”?

To translate the book’s ongoing research agenda into a framework suitable for undergraduates, I have designed the course around a series of locations that will ground our semester’s discussions of particular authors and works published in and around the year 1771: these sites will include London, Edinburgh, Philadelphia, and Jamaica. These four locations will orient our readings in the year 1771 both geographically and historically. Moreover, students will supplement this year’s literary texts and contexts with readings in biographical and autobiographical texts involving such exemplary figures as John Wilkes, Benjamin Franklin, or Olaudah Equiano. Anchoring the class discussion around a particular city and a few closely-examined life stories should enable undergraduates to gain a more detailed and complex understanding of a cultural moment as it was experienced at different sites in the British empire. Nonetheless, I also expect students to go beyond their assigned readings by learning about this era from non-literary sources such as contemporary political pamphlets or newspapers, and by doing their own independent research into the historical background and secondary criticism.

Requirements: Students will be required to write brief 2 response-essays about the course-readings, to become responsible for the cultural and historical contexts of one of the cities covered, which they will develop and present in small research groups, and to develop a final research project (ordinarily, a 12-15 pp. research essay) in consultation with the instructor.

Course Readings and Approximate Schedule:

1. London (4 wks).
Arthur Cash, John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty.
Samuel Johnson, The False Alarm and Transactions respecting the Falkland Islands
James Boswell, Boswell for the Defense
Tobias Smollett, Humphry Clinker
Phillis Wheatley, sels. (from Basker, below)

2. Edinburgh (4 wks).
James Buchan, Crowded with Genius: Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind
Henry Mackenzie, The Man of Feeling
Encyclopedia Britannica and Millar, Origin of Ranks in Society, sels.
Robert Fergusson and James Macpherson, sels.

3. Jamaica (4 wks).
Trevor Burnard, Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and his Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World
Richard Cumberland, The West Indian
Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative
Vincent Carretta, Equiano, The African: Biography of a Self-Made Man
James Basker, ed., Amazing Grace: An Anthology of Poems about Slavery, sels.

4. Philadelphia (2 wks).
Anthony Benezet, Some Historical Account of Guinea, with an Account of the Rise and Progress of the Slave Trade
Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography
Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, sels.

5. Coda: 1776
Thomas Paine, Common Sense
Bernard Bailyn, “1776: A Year of Challenge—A World Transformed.”


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