Monthly Archives: September 2008

j. liedl on hubris and hermeneutics

Via Sharon’s EMN, I found a very nice post by jliedl about teaching a graduate methods course, and how this experience has opened up a whole new line of reflection about her own work.  She says:

This year, I’m struck by the issue of hermeneutics in historical interpretation — essentially, the belief that one has to see the past (or whatever culture one is studying) on its own terms; to understand the text (written document, image, series of actions) in the context of its creation).

So far so good. But one interesting effect of teaching this kind of course is that you lose some of your certainty about your discipline’s major assumptions and practices, because you are repeatedly exposed to good but “undisciplinary” questions about its subject-matter.   And you often find yourself lacking good, persuasive explanations for what you would like to explain in authoritative terms.  And this sense of unease with accepted explanations is precisely what you need to move your research and teaching into new areas.

Jliedl, for example, seems very concerned that she has no good answers to students who complain that her demand to read the past in “its” terms and not their own is too uncompromising to be of any use.  Whose terms do they use, where can they find them, and how should they use them?

Jliedl appropriately moves them away from the scary and rather abstract possibility of some “true understanding,” and towards a more productive form of question: “park your smug superiority at the door and get down to asking why and how people thought the way they thought in order to have done these things!”  And posing this question, which makes the past a topic of inquiry, makes it possible for students to move past a seemingly impossible demand to learn something new.  As she says,

That opens up a whole different can of worms: charges of hubris and complaints of the impossibility of the task at hand. Who are we to think we can really understand this historical culture? Students complain that they lack the time and tools (background knowledge of the Bible, say, or languages) to truly interpret the past.

What interests me here is that students who were perfectly willing to judge the past wholesale (“Yes, women were hopelessly subordinated under sixteenth century law and custom”, and on the basis of very little knowledge of the period, suddenly become much more reticent and fearful when it comes to the project of learning more about the past.  Their sense of the “hubris” involved in understanding the past, then, is partly a defensive rationalization–do we really want to learn more?–and partly an acknowledgment of just how hard a job like this really is. But how do we lead those who are not fully professionalized, either as grad students or as undergraduates, into activities that resemble our disciplinary practices?

In one sense, I think it’s worth cultivating their sense of the largeness of the task, but not simply because it’s pedagogically useful: that sense of risk should accompany any large-scale attempt to reconstruct and explain the past, but I believe that beginners are much more likely to feel it than the practitioners, who would usually benefit from a bit more self-doubt about their own efforts of understanding, because this kind of reflection can lead to better teaching.

This was confirmed to me by a book I’ve been reading that describes the difficulties of teaching writing within conventional disciplinary frameworks.  The author, Beaufort, quotes David Russell to the effect that:

A discipline uses writing as a tool for pursuing some object.  Writing is not the object of its activity.  Thus, writing tends to become transparent, automatic, and beneath the level of conscious activity  for those who are thoroughly socialized into it . . . As a result, experts may have great difficulty explaining these operations to neophytes (15).

And Beaufort cites Polanyi’s notion of tacit knowledge, without realizing that she has explained the classic conundrum of the big-name celebrischolar who offers shockingly bad teaching to generations of students hoping to take advantage of his reputation.

As this example suggests, perhaps the most fundamental challenge of teaching derives not from any mastery of content but from “making  . . . tacit knowledge conscious,” as Beaufort phrases it.   And this kind of teaching can only come about through showing students how to find things out for themselves, even if it’s an incremental process.  And jliedl seems to be doing exactly that in her methods class.

Accordingly, jliedl wants to teach her grad students (but should it only be grad students?) how to strike out on their own, forget the intimidation of the fields that need to be mastered, and dive right into the questions that interest them.

I [she says] want to encourage them to explore a little bit more and to venture a few interpretations of their own when they read, say, some of the justifications offered in Wyatt’s Rebellion or selections out of John Bunyan’s Memoirs without making the demands so unreasonable or the task so overwhelming that they do nothing at all. I’m just not sure that I’ve struck the proper balance. At least not so far!

And these, to me, seem just the right questions to get her students going.



some eighteenth-century blogs

Since I haven’t added much value to the blog lately I thought that I’d offer up to Long 18th readers some of the newer 18th c-ish blogs that have popped up in the last few months.  Some of these are intermittent, but worth checking out, anyway.

  • Jenny Davidson’s Light Reading.  This blog is in a different category than the rest, because Davidson is a Columbia English prof who publishes fiction as well as 18c criticism, and she often uses the blog as a way to talk about what she reads and thinks about when not in the classroom.  But well worth following.
  • The Scriblerus Memoirs.  A grad student blog, by someone who is thinking a great deal about encyclopedias, media, and 18c literature.
  • A Chapter upon Chapters.  (What is it about Sterne and bloggers?  I’m seeing a pattern here, and probably falling into it myself.)  Grad student blog.  A brand-new blog, with an interesting post about McKeon’s takedown of Wahrman’s book.
  • The Blake Archive’s (un)official blog, The Cynic Sang.  I only learned about this when Rachel Lee, one of the contributors, turned up here, but there’s some interesting Blake stuff here that people might want to lookat.
  • Edward Vallance’s eponymous blog promises “radicalism, history and occasional pop culture references,” and delivers.  There’s an interesting thread about the relative evil of Oliver Cromwell that I found all the more compelling when I found two historians pummelling each other in the comments section about the civilian casualties in Drogheda.  Lots of interesting political history/commentary here, from someone who’s just published a narrative history of the Glorious Revolution.

In general, I get the impression that there are 18c folks out there blogging, but we don’t have as many continuously running blogs or discusssions as, say, the people doing medieval or early modern (if Sharon’s EMN or Cliopatria‘s blogrolls are any indicator).  I’d also say that the credibility of print authorship and reputation, unsurprisingly, still have a lot of effect on one’s position in the blogiverse (look at Davidson or Vallance, for example).  But I also wonder whether the inherently mixed, anti-specialist tendencies in the blogging world will affect our notions of scholarly reputation, when the print books used as the basis for academic tenure have such limited distribution.

On a different note, since a number of courseblogs are linking to the Long 18th, I was also wondering if those doing 18c courseblogs would be interested in comparing courseblogs and how they’re using their blogs for instruction?  Let me know if you think this would be an interesting idea.



UPDATE: Adela at Twofold, an 18c blog that had escaped my notice, takes up the interesting question of why grad students do or do not blog their scholarship, and points out another 18c blog of interest, Ink and Incapability, that I had not seen before.  So please check both these out, and spread the love as only an 18c specialist knows how um, visit their blogs and express your appreciation as vociferously as you can.

two upcoming events in the bloggish world


Ike and Sadie

This pic was actually taken a few hours before the hurricane rolled in, but you get the idea.   Sadie, the latest addition to our household, did a great job throughout the hurricane and during our travels around the state and in and out of people’s houses last week.  Sadie is a lab mix we rescued a week before the storm, and has been a very gracious and well-behaved puppy.  She actually seemed to enjoy the attention she got by being confined with us for a week.

As I may have mentioned in earlier comments, we had 100 mph winds shaking the whole house early Saturday morning, and were lucky not to get a tree branch through a window.   Sadie ended up spending much of the night in the bedroom with us.  The damages in Houston seemed to be almost entirely wind-related, since the rainfall was pretty light and we more or or less missed the storm surge that whacked Galveston and the rest of the coast last week.

And here is one observation: there is nothing like a hurricane to get people into the street to greet your dog.

Our neighborhood, unlike many others in town, finally had its power turned back on a few days ago, but the area around the university campus is still iffy in terms of restored services.  Still, I taught the students that turned up last week, and hope that we can resume a more or less normal semester next week.



we’re back (sort of)

[image from (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)/abcnews]

I’m blogging tonight from College Station, TX, where we’re staying until the electricity is restored in Houston.  We rode out the storm fine, but it’s taking some time to get the power back on.  Classes at UH might begin again as early as Tuesday.  If we have any gulf coast/Houston area readers, it would be nice to hear how it went for you.  I’ll return to normal blogging as soon as I can.



hurricane forming in gulf, part II

Ah, yes, it’s happening all over again.  For those who are curious, we are still hunkered down in Houston, and leaving the roads open for the evacuees from Galveston etc.  We don’t expect to get on the road, but will probably get hit with the winds and the rain and the loss of power sometime between Friday and Saturday, according to the current predictions.  This year’s twist is that we have a brand-new puppy with us, who will help us stay brave.

Now I have to head out to pick up some batteries and an extra tank of propane . . . .


blackwell companion to digital literary studies online

Thanks to Sharon at EMN and Kristine at Serendipities, I just saw that the Blackwell Companion to digital literary studies, after an initial, somewhat baffling release in paper, has been posted online here. I’m not going to attempt a full-scale review, but I did want to share a few quick reactions, to see if others felt the same way I did.  (this kind of response-gathering, incidentally, is one of the major appeals of digital scholarship, though of course it brings its own problems with it)

Overall, the site itself is disappointingly un-interactive, especially considering the content (uh, digital scholarship?) of the Companion.   You can email suggestions to someone, and that’s about it.  When you consider the number of contributors involved, the hours they invested in this project, and the speed with which this kind of scholarship decays, it seems to me that the smartest thing would be to invite others to help you update the material, and turn it into an ongoing source of discussion.  But Blackwell, despite this gesture toward digital release, still seems uncomfortable with some of the implications of digital scholarship, not least those aspects of digital authorship and dissemination that remain at odds with those of “scholarly publishing.”  (A good example, which I will not discuss here, is its very dated take on blogging in general, which has no references beyond 2005-6, though I fully understand this kind of delay is not uncommon in contemporary scholarly publishing)

Peter Damian-Grint‘s chapter on the eighteenth-century resources in English and other languages is a thoughtful and well researched piece, though I would add that his essay is sometimes vulnerable to the same charge that he repeatedly directs towards others–that the thought or the execution of this foray into digital scholarship sometimes lags behind the promise of the new medium, or betrays its origins in the unexamined assumptions and practices of print scholarship.

DG’s dual focus is on two categories of materials found on the web: the kind of teaching materials that one might use in secondary or undergrad literature survey classes, and the kinds of resources specialized scholars might use in their own research.  (Incidentally, there is not much on the uses of digital resources for undergraduate research, or their implications for pedagogy)

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he finds most of the material in both categories hopelessly below true expert or scholarly standards.  Here is a characteristic description of what he finds “out there”:

As is generally true of the present generation of electronic resources, there is a clear focus on quantity over quality. Most available digital resources connected with eighteenth-century literature appear to be aimed at the secondary-level (high school) student, and the materials provided are generally unimpressive in both substance and presentation. There is little attempt at scholarship; critical annotation is often absent or basic, and the text itself (when it does not consist simply of page images) is frequently error-strewn. Even leaving aside the actual accuracy of the text, it is common to find that no information has been provided about the printed source from which it has been taken; when the source is known, it often proves to come from an uncritical popular edition of the nineteenth or early twentieth century — i.e., the digitizer has gone for material in the public domain, without any regard to reliability or accuracy. Texts are provided without contexts, and in their rawest and most technologically unsophisticated state; even the visual presentation is frequently uninviting.2 Clearly we are still in the early stages of electronic provision, and more recent sites show the promise of more usability and a more sophisticated approach to literary works and their creators.

DG does acknowledge the value of a few resources, like Jack Lynch’s justly celebrated Eighteenth-Century Resources (though DG’s link information was, unsurprisingly for a book of this nature, out of date and useless), and the Oxford-based Thomas Gray Archive.

However, I think that DG misunderstands the kind of labor that goes into most digital scholarship, which to a great extent is the unpaid work of individuals in their spare time and for their own incidental purposes.  He sniffs, for example, that “Bibliography sites often seem to be the work of individuals and to suffer from the effects of hobbyist’s myopia: i.e., because the builders of such sites are so close to their subject, they can find it hard to appreciate that the information needs to be mediated in a way that makes sense to the non-expert.”  There is a surprising degree of embarassment, considering both the period and the media we are discussing, about the mingling of amateurs and professionals in scholarly activities.  You would never think that such a thing as antiquarian scholarship existed in the eighteenth century.

Bibliography sites may indeed be difficult to read and largely unhelpful to most surfers, but DG seems to be missing an important point here: some of the most interesting stuff on the web is useful precisely to the extent that it is not mediated by someone lecturing us.  Instead, the model seems to be that of scholars–professional, semi-professional, and amateur–sharing information that was once useful for them in their own projects and activities, and leaving the results of their ongoing researches in the open for others to pick through for their own purposes.  This vagrant model of information-sharing, to a large extent, represents the entire rationale behind scholarly blogs like this one, which emerged largely because of the sluggishness and unresponsiveness of the scholarly publishing industry, which still sees fit to publish expensive, soon-to-be out-of-print books about the web complete with dead links.

So DG seems to be working with text-based notions of authorship and the transmission of scholarly authority, a set of assumptions unsuited for describing the strengths and weaknesses of web-based scholarship.  Collaborations, for one thing, help to make up for the “hobbyist’s myopia” described here, as well as the lack of institutional support for scholarly work.

It also seems to me that only a tiny minority of web-based scholarly projects (Voice of the Shuttle, Gallica, etc.) will ever get the full-scale support DG proposes for the future of digital scholarship.  The rest of us will have to scramble, as we have already learnt how to do.  So rather than pursue a top-down, centralized model of “scholarly publishing” that does not even exist in book publishing anymore (go ask Blackwell how many humanities monographs and scholarly editions they publish nowadays), we might think instead about how to use the strengths of this medium to full advantage.