This semester I’m teaching “Later Eighteenth-Century Literature” an upper-level class, offered by the English department, mostly filled with junior and senior English majors seeking to fulfill their pre-1800 requirement, most of whom has already taken the required Brit. Lit. survey.
On the first day of class this semester, I asked them to write down “everything you know about British literature from the 1740s to the 1790s.” My goal had been to shake loose a certain stereotype of the eighteenth century (reason, decorum, powdered wigs, the suppression of human emotion), which I could then overturn with some smutty bits from Tristram Shandy on the second day of class. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I still can’t decide which), they didn’t seem to have any stereotypes to overturn, or at least none that they felt comfortable revealing to a self-proclaimed expert in the field. Class discussion revealed that they had grasped that the date 1776 fell within the span—but little more.
Then I went home and read what they had written, and came up with plan B: a timeline that I cut-and-pasted from their responses. I posted it on the wiki I have set up for the course and invited the students to go in and (a) edit, change, or amplify their own entries on the list and (b) identify where on the timeline “the later C18” falls. It’s proving to be a useful exercise I think, and more effective in some ways than a big contextual lecture would be.
I’m still trying to process what the original timeline says about collective brain of our students, so I offer it up to the denizens of the Long Eighteenth for their reflections: Course Timeline. Please be kind—I have a link to this blog on the wiki, and as one student plaintively pointed out in writing the exercise ““I’m taking this class because…I don’t know much about it!”
These entries, lifted directly from that first-day exercise, are arranged in roughly (I stress the term “roughly”) chronological order, from earliest to latest—though with a great deal of overlap and (in some cases) indeterminacy. Entries in quotation marks are direct quotations from student responses.