Monthly Archives: January 2008

Week 1, Spring ’08

My apologies for the light posting over the past few weeks.  After a quick trip to Shady Side to visit my folks, I’ve been doing last-minute preps for my new 1771 course, along with the usual end-of-break rush to resolve things from the last semester.  I won’t even use the metaphor of “clearing my desk,” since at this point what I need to clear is floorspace in my offices at home and on campus.  The impetus for this was my wife’s demand that I remove all the boxes of files left over from the book (the last book) from the house pronto, and either shred or store the files, she didn’t care which, so long as she never had to look at them again.

 After reading this, I reluctantly agreed to start moving boxes out of the house.  After a few trips, though, this project was redefined as just dumping the boxes in my office on campus.  Now my office on campus is beginning to feel a little cramped and claustrophobic, sort of like those tense interior scenes in Das Boot, only without the steam or standing water.  But those guys loved where they worked, right?

  Since I seem to be spending less time inside my office (and who needs to sit down while they work, anyway?), I’ve started gathering some new group commitments, but these feel much more appealing than any of the service I did last term.  Some grad students want to read some texts in the history of aesthetics; the Rice Early Modern Reading group looks like it will be active again; and I just put together a blogging panel with some grad students for a technology showcase on campus next month.

And then there was my first week of teaching.  My 3301 Swift and Literary Studies went fine, as usual.  I’ve got some returning students there, and it looks to be a very bright and talkative group.  My 1771 course, however, is looking a bit more complicated. 

The 1771 course, which has gotten tremendous support from both the library and the college, is going to be a pilot course in undergrad research for the college QEP.  So far so good.  But the prerequisites that were going to ensure a more homogeneous and advanced group (it’s an experimental capstone) vanished with the implementation of a new centralized registration system. 

So a bunch of randomish people who had never attended the class appeared on my rolls after the first week’s meetings.  In the meantime,  the students that I did have in the classroom were either intimidated or confused about the purpose of a course that has moved outside the conventional lecture-format.  It didn’t help that the single-year focus scrambles our usual parameters of author-genre-period-survey.  What’s this about? they ask.  And why are we helping you write your book?  And what’s this about, again?

 But as soon as we started reading Humphry Clinker, with me lecturing again and them taking notes, things settled down.  And then I realized all over again that just to read a moderately challenging novel like HC, we could spend my entire “London” segment concentrating upon purely “literary” questions like plot, character, setting, etc. for a single novel, without ever attempting any outside research at all.  And, to compound the problem, I was having them read HC without covering any other novels beforehand, so that every convention of this highly conventional novel would have to be explained for the first time in the next week or so. 

And this, I discovered, is the chief reason why most undergrad novel courses begin in 1688 or thereabouts, and not 1771.  So now I know.  However, I do have the next 14 weeks to learn more reasons why you should never attempt a single-year course.

Which leads me to my final point.  At MLA during my talk, I became interested in the continual anxiety we feel about the quality and sophistication of the contexts imparted to students, and the feelings of anger, guilt, frustration, regret, etc. which arise when students don’t seem capable of that kind of sophistication in their discussions and written work. 

And I think that undergrad education nowadays is divided up between what I’d call “mimetic” institutions, where it’s assumed that students are indeed capable of reproducing the lectures, and the “non-mimetic” ones, where the whole business of teaching is obsessed with building up their capacities for reproduction.  But I think it’s probably more effective to focus upon how much “use” our students can make of what we teach them (cf. de Certeau), and to worry less about how well they mimic our lectures.  And this is a surprisingly difficult lesson to learn, even after ten years of teaching students in an institution like UH.




Read *It*; Talk about *It*; Blog *It*

The Eighteenth-Century Reading Group here at the University of Maryland will next be discussing Joe Roach’s It (University of Michigan Press).  We will meet on Friday, Feb 8 from 1-3. It would be great if others want to read along with us and post their responses. Would there be interest in a McKeon-style “collaborative reading” again?  Maybe we could start posting a few days before the discussion?


UPDATE (via DM): Here’s the link.

Cultural Studies and the BABL

The 18th-century cultural studies panel from MLA provided an excellent discussion about the opportunities and limitations of cultural studies as pedagogy, especially in the undergraduate classroom, and has got me thinking about ways to solve, or at least massage, some of the problems discussed on the panel, using some of the resources that are cropping up for instructors as guides for my students. The main problem that emerged during the cultural studies panel and the ECCO panel that morning was the lack of a guide to navigate the wealth of contextualizing sources available to our students, many of whom lack the research experience and intuition necessary to decide what is relevant to the study of a historical text and what may not yield a fruitful contextualization.

One of the resources I’m excited to have accessed is the Broadview Anthology of British Literature’s Instructor’s Guide, which I contributed to last summer. I got a passcode for these materials at Broadview’s display at the convention, and am very pleased to see the materials assembled there, which I can see using quite actively in the classroom. The guides generally provide a series of critical approaches to the authors, a few thoughtful readings of their major works, some questions for discussion, some material on critical responses to the works, and often a nice section of texts that provide some cultural context for the work. Although not all of the authors are covered yet, the ones that are provide a sort of roadmap to criticism and historical sources for many of the authors and texts we teach at the undergraduate level.

Obviously, the guides provided by BABL are limited in that the historical sources they suggest are those chosen by whatever scholar wrote the draft of the guide, but they do offer, at least, positive suggestions (i.e., something like “Try looking here”) as opposed to the negative suggestions we often find ourselves making to undergraduate researchers (“No, that’s probably not going to be a good source; try again”). My own guide, on Swift, reflects my personal interests in popular print culture and political economies, and is therefore quite limited, beyond some suggestions about other topics to research. However, I hope it offers something like what I offer students in class who simply don’t know where to start—a suggestion of a few leads that have the potential to produce an exciting research project, leading to further research more specific to that student’s interests.

One of the most exciting things, pedagogically, for those of us who encourage historical research in literature classes, is that our students may find wonderful sources that we’ve never encountered before, and make excellent connections we haven’t thought of. Those who have a knack for sussing out sources and making interesting conclusions can respond to an open-ended research assignment with passionate inquiry. However, at the undergraduate level, these open-ended research assignments can result, as Dwight Codr suggested during the panel, in a kind of despair.

In my own historical-research wiki assignment, in which I offered 70 narrow topics for research to my students, the results were either inspiringly brilliant or depressingly nonexistent. Quite a few students chose to take a zero for the assignment rather than complete the work, and a great number did only cursory and often inappropriate research (citing other student-made websites rather than primary sources, etc.), despite a great deal of class-time devoted to discussion of how to find and use primary sources. I eventually had to make the assignment extra-credit, so as not to fail a third of each of my classes. I assumed at the time that the project itself was doomed, but now I wonder if the problem was that one must not just teach students to do primary source research; one must model it for them by guiding them to examples of appropriate sources first, not just topics and suggestions for where to look.

What I hope to use the BABL guide for next semester is to mine it for historical sources that I can assign directly to students who do not readily come up with sources of their own, and to assign them the contextualization work suggested by the guides and by my own previous reading experiences. Once they have followed a path that previous scholars have found fruitful, perhaps they can then be more attuned to the kinds of sources they might look for in future assignments. After all, most of us learned to do contextualizing research by reading professional historicist criticism, not by slogging blind through special collections or databases. We learn to do this work largely by example, not by trial and error.

The problem in the past, for me, has been that my reading of primary sources outside of literature has largely been in special collections that my students do not have access to, and little of it has been the kind of stuff that interests my students. While I’d love to get them all interested in the Gentleman’s Magazine or in Coke’s Institutes of the Lawes of England, I can’t necessarily expect them all to travel from their homes on Long Island to midtown Manhattan to spend four or five hours trying to decipher typefaces totally unfamiliar to them, and expect them to find something critically interesting and relevant to the class, and expect them to then draw knowledgeable and well-written conclusions about those sources that their classmates will then read and use. Out of the past 200 or so students I’ve urged to go use a special collection for their research, exactly one student actually did it, and she ended up citing almost nothing she read there.

Although the BABL guides don’t tend to reproduce entire sources, they do often provide a few pages of contextualizing sources, from which a student could at least get a hint of whether she wants to spend time looking further at that source or not. On a larger scale, one could imagine a resource like the BABL guides, except perhaps in a wiki form, with suggestions by scholars of possible contextualizing sources for major authors or genres and short excerpts, as well as lists of places to find these resources on the web, on EEBO or ECCO, or in special collections. This would take a great deal of time and energy on instructors’ and scholars’ parts, but, if Wikipedia has taught us anything, it’s that human beings are glad to expend energy in a collective way if there is the promise of an output greater than their individual input.

Do we think it’s possible for literary and cultural-studies scholars, a turf-warfare bunch if ever there was one, to cooperate in some kind of project like this? Would it be best to run it somewhat like Wikipedia, with mostly pseudonymous authorship and editing? Would it be a gigantic disaster?

-Carrie Shanafelt

The Long 18th MLA cultural studies pedagogy panel wrap-up

Thanks to everyone who showed up at 7 pm last Friday night to hear the panel that Laura Rosenthal and I put together–these were the brave people who tromped through the Chicago snow to hear Tom DiPiero, Carl Fisher, Laura Engel, Dwight Codr and I present our roundtable about cultural studies and pedagogy, while Laura R. moderated. 

 I won’t try to summarize individual presentations, but here are a few points from the conversation that I think others might find helpful while trying to introduce cultural studies methodologies into the undergraduate classroom.

  • Panelists generally agreed that they moved pretty regularly between literary and cultural studies in their own research, but that students needed far more direction and practice to make those connections themselves, especially when dealing with the open-endedness of cultural studies-style writing assignments. 
  • Unsurprisingly for a group of 18th-century scholars, historicization and contextualization played a crucial, recurring role in their teaching process, so that students could begin to understand the stark differences between their own understandings and those of earlier readers and writers.  Yet panelists also stressed the need for students to develop an awareness of parallels between 18th century experiences and their own, to engage students better in what might otherwise seem an “antiquarian” activity. 
  • Historicizing the writing of the past, however, was by no means a straightforward task, because students could be surprisingly selective, literal-minded, resistant, or myopic in their responses to classroom contextualizations, whether in the form of lectures or supplementary readings.  Here a cluster of related problems appeared:  
    • For one thing, various mediating contexts offered by professors  (e.g., the critique of luxury), because they are neither self-sufficient nor discrete, might themselves require as much explanation as the primary text they supposedly “help to explain” (e.g., the Rape of the Lock).  Teaching students the necessarily open-ended nature of contextualization seems one of the key differences between cultural studies and literary studies, but it does complicate the foreground/background distinction in instruction. 
    • Assuming that we do wish to teach students to resist premature closure in interpretations, what then constitutes an adequate contextualization?  Essentially, this means teaching them principles of appropriate closure, rather than taking such conclusions for granted.  Especially frustrating in this respect is the student who gets prematurely fixated on a single context, and feels obliged to defend that one instead of learning and mastering new contexts to refine her readings further. 
    • Moreover, even students who appear to have mastered previous contexts might find themselves unable to use the same information in subsequent research and writing.  As frustrating as this is for instructors, it’s worth thinking about this as a reflection of a (necessarily) truncated learning-process.  Students, for example, may not yet be able to recognize or understand the connectedness of the various contexts they have learned separately and successively, and so find themselves unable to integrate them during more synthetic writing assignments.  So the challenge of acquiring historical awareness involves learning about the specific articulations between and among multiple contexts.  Learning how to assess and balance multiple contexts also aids in the process of learning to write about these contexts in a reasonably integrated fashion in the service of an overarching argument.  Because historicization demands that students surrender their own frameworks for understanding,  teaching it accordingly demands a non-linear process, rather like writing instruction, characterized by students’ successive approximations, followed feedback, and corrections from the instructor.
  • Nonetheless, panelists agreed that certain “shortcuts” (Fisher’s term) could aid students in their quest for greater historical understanding: Fisher, for example, talked about the use of visual culture, especially film, as a way to force students to engage with the period and its narratives in new ways; others mentioned more scholarly forms of alienation and/or assimilation devices, such as translation exercises or annotated bibliographies and book reviews.  These functioned as historical and pedagogical metaphors, which allowed students to assimilate unfamiliar practices to their own understanding, or accommodate this or that new piece of information with a revised understanding of the past.  The crucial point here, as Hugh C. Petrie has argued about educational uses of metaphor, is that such occasional historical analogies (e.g., “Jonathan Swift is an 18th century Stephen Colbert”) constitute one of the most effective ways for students to remember what they learn, help them move from familiar to unfamiliar conceptual schemes, and help to ground and direct their activities as they solve concrete problems (cf. Petrie, “Metaphor and learning,” 460-1, in Metaphor and Thought, ed. Ortony (Cambridge, 1979)).
  • Finally, the final research assignment, because it relied so heavily on students’ ability to pursue independently a project to completion, seemed to produce mostly anxiety among students and disappointment for instructors.  Final papers were often incoherent or at the very least innocent of the theoretical lessons of the previous 14 weeks.  But cultural studies methodologies, particularly de Certeau’s notion of “use,” should caution us against expecting a perfect “reproduction” of classroom lectures or readings from students, whatever their background. 

And here are a few of my own responses to a very useful discussion:

  • We had a very interesting question from the audience about reconciling the divergent views of the 18th century as, for example, the “Age of Stability,” the “Age of Enlightenment,” the “precursor to the French Revolution,” “the birth of Conservatism,” “the origin of Human Rights,” or “the heyday of slavery.”  etc. etc.  No one on the panel was eager to synthesize such disparate interpretations of our period, but I do think that it is the impact of cultural studies, and its radically indeterminate notions of culture and period organization, that make it possible to frame such questions nowadays.  We do demand such intellectual and moral complexity in representations of the period nowadays.
  • I like the way that cultural studies has reinvigorated the literary category of “context,” but I also suspect that the current lack of interest in the boundaries between the literary and the cultural may also allow us to forget about the wealth of non-literary (i.e., non-verbal, meaning visual, documentary, or institutional) contexts that could inform what we do.  These could easily be neglected in an overly “textualized” cultural studies.
  • Laura asked a very good question about the political implications or effects of cultural studies in the academy nowadays, and this to me was the biggest unanswered question that emerged during the forum.  Codr’s work on ECCO addressed some of this implicitly, but the emphasis on historicization in some ways leads us away from the questions of present political significance.

Any thoughts about this, either from participants or those who didn’t make it to MLA?  Let us know.

Best wishes,