Monthly Archives: June 2008

tools, etc. for electronic research in the humanities

After a few queries and some noodling around on my own, here’s a sampling of some of the stuff I’ve been using (or consulting) for research, teaching, etc.

Useful sites for reflection, discussion, reference:

Toolcenter wiki from the Center for History and New Media.

(description from the homepage: “This is a Wiki that we’ve put together to build a collaborative resource to connect builders and users of digital tools. Originally built to support the online history community, the Tools Center has expanded and welcomes entries on tools for digital scholarship, archiving and preservation writ large”)

Digital Research in the Humanities

(an academic blog run by Lisa Spiro, Director of the Digital Media Center at Rice’s Fondren Library)

Digital Research Tools (DiRT) wiki

(h/t to Sharon Howard of EMN)

(a wiki edited in part by Lisa Spiro [see above], which “collects information about tools and resources that can help scholars (particularly in the humanities and social sciences) conduct research more efficiently or creatively . . . . We provide a directory of tools organized by research activity, as well as reviews of select tools in which we not only describe the tool’s features, but also explore how it might be employed most effectively by researchers”)

What I’m using this summer:


(after looking around (on the blogs, etc. mentioned above) and examining some other options for note-taking and reference management, I decided that this would be the best option for both research and teaching in the foreseeable future.  I also liked the fact that it was free and open-source, esp. when assigning it to students.  Less happy about the problem of backing up onto multiple machines)



Word Clouds from Wordle: Laurence Sterne, Sentimental Journey

I have nothing profound to say about this, except click on the teeny word-cloud, and you’ll see one of my favorite passages of Sterne’s.  My thanks to Wordle for the nifty re-experience of Sterne’s “text.”


UPDATE: Though my first reaction to Wordle was, “What a neat toy!” Mercurius Politicus (referencing Lisa Spiro‘s Digital Scholarship in the Humanities) shows us how to use Wordle as a tool for catching key concepts in primary texts.

My suspicion is that a tool like this would be most useful in generating useful clusters of concepts in primary texts, and developing secondary or supplemental keywords that you could use to generate additional keywords for additional searching.  So, for example, in the Civil-War era pamphleteer Henry Walker, “Drogheda” appears much more prominently in the word-cloud than in the DNB biography.  So the word-cloud becomes another, and interestingly non-textual, point of entry into the Walker corpus than what we might have found pre-Wordle.

Nice job, Mercurius Politicus.


genre and distance

Over the past few years, the intellectual historian Mark Salber Phillips has been developing an interesting train of thought about historiography, genre, and distance, where he argues that distance constitutes one of the fundamental parameters of historical writing.  (For those with access to Project MUSE, some of these articles can be found here, here, and here). 

For Phillips, distance can serve both synchronically (as a stylistic option for writers in historical genres) or diachronically (to characterize the dominant paradigms and genres of history-writing at a particular point in time).   

The generic dimension of Phillips’s argument has always seemed pivotal to me, because by viewing genre as historically conditioned, it transforms genre “into an instrument of historical investigation.”  This seems to me a basic assumption that literary scholars have held for some time, but well worth applying to historical and other kinds of writing as well. 

Genres . . . are necessarily responsive to each other as well as to the social conditions that frame them. In this way, they form larger groupings or systems, which are themselves historically conditioned and variable. Accordingly, as authors innovate and the conditions of knowledge and communication change over time, genres undergo a process of revision that registers new relations of authors, readers, and disciplines (Histories 213).

Phillips transforms history from a single, continuous, unified category to an ensemble of genres with its own stratifications, its own highs and lows, its own contradictions.  This is clearly an empirical advance on earlier, more idealized notions of history and history-writing.  Moreover, it gives a very plausible account of the significance of the “minor” genres for registering the newest, most innovative forces at play at a particular moment. 

First, building on the idea that genres are contrastive and combinatory, I want to argue against the customary assumption that history is a single, stable, and rather decorous literature and suggest instead that it is best understood as a cluster of overlapping and competing genres, “low” as well as “high.” The result is a much more nuanced and flexible picture of historical thought—one that is better able to accommodate the range of methods, ideologies, and rhetorics that make up the practice of any given era of historical writing. And since the so-called “minor” genres often give us the best evidence of the force of new agendas or the demands of new audiences, a genre theory that pays attention to the full range of historical writing is much better able to capture the sense of new directions in thought or practice.

It seems to me that anyone trying to write a literary history of the late 18th century, with all its experiments and one-offs, would have to use an explanatory scheme like Phillips’s to account for this period’s peculiar character.

But thinking about genre as a communicative practice in the 18th century naturally raises the question of how it works for our own writing: to what extent does professional literary criticism enforce its own strictures on behalf of “distance”?  How might distance be understood differently when we move from the various genres of literary criticism to historical writing?  And how does distance organize the highs and lows, the major and minor genres of our canon of criticism?


Hans Turley

The Long Eighteenth mourns the loss of the warm and wonderful Hans Turley, who died this week after a recurrence of liver cancer.  Hans taught at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. He will be deeply missed.

Hans will be remembered for his contributions to eighteenth-century studies and queer theory, for his brilliance, wit, and kindness.



“Turley presents a thoroughly-researched literay and cultural history of the transgressive pirate figure in the early eighteenth-century.”
Journal of Folklore Research

Despite, or perhaps because of, our lack of actual knowledge about pirates, an immense architecture of cultural mythology has arisen around them. Three hundred years of novels, plays, painting, and movies have etched into the popular imagination contradictory images of the pirate as both arch-criminal and anti-hero par excellence. How did the pirate-a real threat to mercantilism and trade in early-modern Britain-become the hypermasculine anti-hero familiar to us through a variety of pop culture outlets? How did the pirate’s world, marked as it was by sexual and economic transgression, come to capture our collective imagination?

In Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, Hans Turley delves deep into the archives to examine the homoerotic and other culturally transgressive aspects of the pirate’s world and our prurient fascination with it. Turley fastens his eye on historical documents, trial records, and the confessions of pirates, as well as literary works such as Robinson Crusoe, to track the birth and development of the pirate image and to show its implications for changing notions of self, masculinity, and sexuality in the modern era.

Turley’s wide-ranging analysis provides a new kind of history of both piracy and desire, articulating the meaning of the pirate’s contradictory image to literary, cultural, and historical studies.

inquiry and historical research in the literature classroom?

While I was reading Ann Dalke’s very interesting review of Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan (courtesy of the Valve), I came upon some fascinating discussions of inquiry-based education on Serendip, the Bryn Mawr science/education blog. 

And while looking over this post, I was struck by the teaching philosophy developed by two Biology instructors, Grobstein and Franklin, for their elementary lab courses:

[The underpinnings of science] suggest that what is of primary importance is to encourage and help students to develop their skills and sophistication in inquiry as a ongoing process, rather than primarily to teach them either particular content or particular skills. This is particularly true in an age when content is widely accessible and particular skills quickly go out of date. The need is not to implant particular material or perspectives in students but rather to help them develop the capacities to evaluate information and to construct for themselves meaningful ways of organizing information.

The perspective on teaching laid out here seems fundamental to me for teaching in any discipline, but I admit that I don’t know many teachers, in- or outside the sciences, who really practice this kind of pedagogy, outside of those teaching at elite liberal arts schools.  No one else has the time or the inclination, except for those doing what they can in non-elite institutions, delivering it to students in bits and pieces.  And certainly, if we want to understand why Professor X from the Atlantic article (see my post from a few weeks ago) is such a catastrophically bad teacher, it’s his ignorance or denial of such principles that causes many of his difficulties in the classroom.

Nonetheless, I really like Grobstein’s and Franklin’s recommendations for research assignments based on this model:

  • Start with materials that students are interested in, and about which they have both thoughts and questions. 
  • Encourage students to recognize and share their current understandings of these sorts of materials, and to notice differences in understandings.
  • Encourage students to make new observations that are surprising to at least some of them.
  • Encourage students to figure out why they are surprised (ie what understanding they had that wouldn’t have let them to expect the observation they have made), and what new understandings (stories) would account for previous understandings as well as the new observations.  
  • Encourage students to make explicit to themselves and others their new understandings and the reasons for them, and to recognize and reflect on differences among them.
  • Enourage students to conceive new observations that have the potential to again alter their understandings/stories.
  • Repeat

  This is all very suggestive for me, but I was also curious about how a teacher of 18th century literature might follow this advice.  So how might we start with the kind of materials that students “are already interested in.”  Unless we happen to be teaching a class on viral videos or Iron Man, this seems ruled out from the start.  We can always play the game of referencing popular culture to talk about what we already know, which gets us part of the way there, but this kind of strategy also feels like a distraction from the purpose of the course, doesn’t it?  In our precious few weeks of reading, how much time do we want to devote to the presentist distortions of the past?  (Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen etc. etc.)

I suppose that the difficulty here is that we are not members of departments named “literary research skills,” but that our knowledge and our professional identities as scholars really are tied up with a specific content, one, alas, that really does “quickly go out of date,” along with the skills that we used to acquire that knowledge.  Graduate education, faculty hires, curricula, all these things are organized explicitly upon the basis of a foundational content, not the acquisition of specific research skills, no matter how necessary those skills are to the acquisition of knowledge of say, 18th-century pamphleteering.  Though we once awarded PhDs for philology, no one is going to get a  PhD in electronic keyword searches.  So teaching in this manner demands that one re-learn one’s own disciplinary knowledge and professional identity, to determine the most effective ways to teach students how to acquire such understanding.  And I’d predict that the curricular structures in our departments are going to change, if only to reflect students’ needs for more explicit instruction in the skills necessary for literary analysis.

At the same time, I’m also wondering how far this predisciplinary notion of “observation” really gets us when we think about teaching literary history, which depends on all sorts of specialist understandings of terms like genre, periodization, stylistic analysis, etc.?  Another “note” by one of the writers talks briefly about the need to distinguish between “observations” and “stories/interpretations” (e.g., “‘I saw A,B,C and think therefore D’ vs ‘I saw D'”), but I felt like there’s an entire set of steps missing from an account like this one. 

Nonetheless, I believe that any successful undergraduate student of literature should be able to move from the ability to make bare observations about a work to developing an interpretation or story about the work and recognizing it as such.    And a large part of this success comes from the student’s ability to understand the importance of the “valuable social character/interplay” that occurs when one reads with an awareness of earlier readers and their accumulated responses.  It is this unseen yet undeniable historical pressure upon our understanding that we try to communicate to the beginning student, but how do we accomplish this without killing off their engagement in the material?  The key step seems to be persuading students of the value of the “unending empirical process that loops repeatedly between observations and interpretations,” so that they may be able to evaluate the information they encounter in their research, while constructing understandings of this information for their own purposes.


Session at ASECS on Dave Mazella’s Book

“Roundtable on David Mazella’s The Making of Modern Cynicism

Maureen Harkin, Reed College, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd Portland OR 97202; Tel: (503) 517-7939; Fax: (503) 777-7769;



The proposed roundtable on David Mazella’s important new book

The Making of Modern Cynicism (2007) is designed to initiate an interdisciplinary discussion of the concept of cynicism in eighteenth-century French and English writings. In tracing the evolution of cynicism from Diogenes to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century incarnations (Hobbes, La Rochefoucauld, Chesterfield, Rousseau) and beyond, Professor Mazella’s cultural and literary history shows how the cynic develops from ascetic philosopher to a misanthropic figure “whose faded belief or curdled trust had left him unfit for attachments to others.” This book connects works (and approaches) across traditional national and disciplinary lines. Hence the format proposed is five participants, one each from the disciplines of French, English, Political Science, History, and Philosophy, each giving a ten-minute paper/discussion dealing with an aspect of the book and developing its propositions in relation to work in the different disciplines.



By the way, ASECS is planning  a few other sessions too: click here for the CFP. 




[links fixed by Dave]


[UPDATE: where I worked, in the new manuscripts portion, built ca. 1974]

This is where I’m working this week–the Guildhall Library–so that I can spend some more time unraveling the complicated legal fortunes of John Wilkes between 1762 and 1771.  These records, convoluted as they are, are definitely giving me more respect for Wilkes, who single-handedly evaded all the Government’s attempts to silence him (though not to jail him) during this period.  In fact, jailing him just made him more popular, so the Government essentially gave it up and contented itself with jailing or harassing his associates.

I must say that manuscript work of this type feels more exhausting than any other kind of research, because deciphering even a single letter can take ages, and Wilkes is a peculiarly well-documented indvidual with volume after volume of papers collected about him.

While reading these papers, along with the political periodicals Wilkes worked on, I was struck at the discrepancy between the political circumstances–which were highly mutable yet inconclusive–and the rigidity of the political discourse–which felt absolutely stereotyped.  It was a huge relief to find a speech of Edmund Burke’s, which perfectly diagnosed the causes of the discontents.  Yet it was equally clear that Burke’s eloquence was having little effect on his fellow-politicians.  It’s a good example of a period where the participants seem more than usually blind to the significance of what they’re doing. 


[and this is the old Guildhall building]