Just How Long is the Long Eighteenth?

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.

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2 responses to “Just How Long is the Long Eighteenth?

  1. Kirstin–

    I’ll be interested to see how your timeline fills out during the course. This kind of “What Do You Know?” exercise at the beginning of a course can be useful for providing some student-authored starting points for class discussion. I remember being asked to do something similar in an undergraduate course on Ben Jonson, but of course we didn’t have WikiTech (TM) then to help us make the most of the exercise!

    Your arranged chrono-list seems to reveal some kind of gap in historical knowledge somewhere between Pope, Rousseau and Jefferson–I wonder if this says something about the kinds of things that are taught in general surveys. Do you plan to address obvious gaps right away, or will they be filled in as you go?

    –S.

  2. Kirstin Wilcox

    Shayda,

    I think the gap you perceive is a consequence of the way my institution structures the Brit. Lit. survey that is required of all majors. It follows the Longman (or Norton) anthologies, with three volumes pre-Romantic era, and three volumes Romantic-era and beyond; the first three volumes are covered in one semester, the second three are covered in the next. Since I’ve been teaching here, the course has been taught by specialists in periods other than the C18, and the one professor I’ve talked to who teaches the first half acknowledges that the third of the course devoted to the Restoration and C18 routinely gets short shrift–four weeks as opposed to the five devoted to the other two volumes of the first half of the Longman anthology.

    I’m not sure that the course as I’ve conceived it will really fill in these gaps in the chronology (I didn’t realize the gaps were so…gaping when I decided on the course format)–so this is an issue I’m going to be thinking about hard before I teach the course next time. Much will depend of course on how much the students end up filling in on their own. In the past I’ve pushed chronology harder, and frog-marched the students through a string-of-pearls sequence of Greatest Hits, which the students found alienating and bewildering. This semester, I’m stressing comprehension (“How to Read Eighteenth-Century” as if it’s a foreign language) and sketching out some broad cultural trends, which the students are to fill in with their group wiki projects. These projects include compiling reading packets of primary sources for the class as a whole to discuss (and for which they will be accountable on the final exam).
    (I am hoping to post the URL for the wiki here, but I gather there are some FERPA and IRB issues that I need to resolve first.)