Monthly Archives: August 2009

Teaching with ECCO

Many eighteenth-century scholars I know have been talking online and offline for several years about how to use ECCO to enhance undergraduate classes.  UMD finally acquired this tool, so I am ready to join the conversation.  What I have picked up from various people over the years has been that the classroom benefits of ECCO are not obvious.  In particular, attempts to have undergraduates base research papers on primary sources from ECCO have often produced mixed results.  Students become overwhelmed with the flood of information and don’t necessarily have good ways of sorting through it.

I thought I would share, then, one small ECCO assignment that I thought was effective and that benefited from hearing about these other experiences.  This summer I taught a course on Restoration and eighteenth-century drama, and instead of assigning a research paper based on information gathered from ECCO, I gave them a separate research assignment: Choose one play and find some kind of response to it in three sources found through ECCO.  Post those responses on our Blackboard site in PDFs and write a brief paper (2-3 pages) about what they suggested to you about the play’s reception.  I encouraged them to use The London Stage, which would refer them to specific sources.  For Restoration plays, they could of course use EEBO.  I had imagined that this assignment would generally raise their grades, but it turned out to be surprisingly challenging.  I walked them through it in class twice, and even then a few were still emailing me at the last minute. 

 One lesson here was that although we tend to think of our students as way more media-savvy than we are (and in some sense this is probably true), using research tools is still something that has to be taught.  I had them present their findings in class, and in the end I thought the assignment was highly productive.  They seemed to enjoy sharing their findings with their classmates, and some came up with some interesting sources.  Looking back, I think it would have been much harder if this assignment was tied to a full-length paper, but as a small, discrete project it worked fairly well for most of them. I am planning a version of this for my honors seminar this fall.  I am interested in whether or not others have done something like this, how it turned out, and if you have any refinements you would recommend.

back to school special: on being postacademic

I found this post discussed at Perverse Egalitarianism, and found it very brave for this writer to lay out his view of the systemic unhappiness, emotional disengagement, and micropolitics of departmental life.  This passage rings especially true for me, when I watch our junior faculty learning about our departmental and institutional history:

The scariest thing a young faculty member experiences is not, as is conventionally supposed, the “need to produce” and therefore her/his experience is not aided by the “mentorship” of an experienced scholar.  Rather, the young scholar’s fear stems from the fact that no one in the department is talking to each other about scholarship.  Faculty are socializing, going out, schmoozing all the time, and the ideas that supposedly drive the work they do are not being discussed.  The mentor, if assigned, will try to teach the young faculty member how to navigate the minefield of the department, but that is exactly what is alienating. .  The mentor, especially when well-intentioned, may be the model for what is wrong, not an aid in coping.  Indeed, if the mentor is really similar to the young faculty member in terms of ideology or social identity, the mentor may be a model for what the young faculty member does not wish to become.

This was one of the surprises for me when I crossed the line and became tenured: how hard it is to mentor people in a way that doesn’t just invite them to join our shared sense of alienation.  The PE comments are worth scanning, too, especially this one:

There is an odd disjunction in the academic. I have never encountered so many supposed-to-be-happy sad persons, all working in a rather lively youth-embued enivornment. To put it to a polemical extreme, it is as if Kafka has written about how Disneyland is run. In my brief time in academia I encountered people largely disappointed with themselves, frustrated with their position, or happy to the meager degree that they were able to exercise a very small measure of local power (however benignly thought of). It seems an industry of personal unhappiness in the most banal of senses, very much for the reasons the author above describes. A Tantalus world of well-intentioned, ideal, intelligent people.

A bit further down, Shahar, the initial poster had this to say (the thread  goes on long past this point, but this makes for a good full stop):

I’ve said it before, but ultimately, pushing all the logic of self-declared, self-important “projects” along with the self-serving “global” ethics of the profession aside (eating berries in Zagreb and all that), at the end of the day the best we can do is fuck with our students and cook up interesting paths for thinking. And I mean that in the best of ways.



Unless your internet has been cut off in the latest round of institutional budget adjustments, you probably know by now that Cathy Davidson has become frustrated with the superficiality and pointlessness of grading, and many people are upset about her decision to try to do something about this. I’ve never tried peer grading, her experimental solution, but one of my goals is always for students to internalize the course objectives, so in that sense it would not be entirely inconsistent. (In the particular digital humanities course Davidson discusses, it is also related to the content in interesting ways.)

I am interested to hear about how contributors to The Long Eighteenth (and anyone passing through) have confronted this quandary in teaching. It seem like something much grumbled about but little discussed.

It took me a long time to figure out why writing endless comments on student papers felt so unsatisfying. Then once a colleague said to me, “I don’t mind giving the grades; I just hate the part where you have to justify them.” In that moment  it occurred to me that much of what I was doing on these papers was, indeed, justifying my decision to give the paper a B or a C. I was explaining to the student what was good about the paper, but also the various ways in which it fell short. This took a tremendous amount of time and did not feel particularly satisfying. Years of entanglement with outcomes assessment helped me realize why it was all so awful: I was pouring huge amounts of time into evaluating the paper, but only minimally contributing to the student’s learning with one of the most time-consuming aspects of the course. While in theory the student was supposed to recognize the strengths and weakness of her work by reading my comments, it didn’t really feel like this was happening, or at least happening enough. Often, I think, the student would read those comments to see whether or not I had indeed fully justified the grade rather than to see how she could improve in the future.

So now I have students write most of their papers in drafts, which separates the learning process and evaluation into two different phases. I did not, of course, invent this method (I copied it from a colleague), but for me it has turned grading from an onerous chore to something that feels purposeful and seems to contribute to learning. When the first draft comes in (electronically), I add lots of comments and queries using the markup function in Word. I find this engaging because I am explaining to the student exactly how he needs to rethink the argument, the support, the writing, the organization, etc. I try to ask pointed questions about whether or not particular assertions are supported by the text. I note the places where evidence, or a topic sentence, or an argument, is needed. At the comment stage, I am not evaluating and there is no grade. When the second draft comes in, I give a grade but little or no commentary. In this method, all of my commenting steers the student toward better writing, criticism, and analysis, and none of it justifies a grade. By the time the student gets the second draft back, he knows how the paper was supposed to improve and pretty much knows whether or not he has done it. I think I get to know the students a little better this way, and as an added benefit in my experience students rarely contest a grade under this system. I also post a rubric on the course web site, which I don’t actually use for scoring points but that lays out exactly what the paper is supposed to achieve. So in theory, by the end of the course students in fact should be able to grade themselves and each other, although I don’t think they come in being able to do this.

collaborative reading in september: richard sher’s enlightenment and the book (UPDATED)

Eleanor Shevlin and I thought it would be fun to do a brief collaborative reading session in mid-September about Sher’s terrific Enlightenment and the Book (Chicago, 2006; link includes 1-34).  I’d like for us to do the Introduction “Toward a Book History of the Scottish Enlightenment” (1-40), ch. 1 “Composing the Scottish Enlightenment” (43-95), and Conclusion (597-609).  We could assign the chunks to three people and do it over three days, and see if Sher wants to participate.  How does that sound to everyone?

UPDATE: Great news!  Rick Sher has agreed to participate.  If anyone else wants to join in, contact me here or offline (at dmazella at  I can also get pdfs to people if they can’t get access to the book for some reason.  Those curious about the book should hit the link above, where the first thirty pages or so are excerpted.


if we read literary histories, why should we be afraid of machine-reading?

After reading D.G. Myers and the Little Professor on the timeliness of literary history, especially in light of Mark Bauerlein’s discussion of the “diminishing returns” of literary criticism as performance, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way literary scholars read each other’s books.  And one of the things that struck me was the (obvious?) fact that scholars routinely read literary histories about books we’ve never read before, because we want to learn more about them, and possibly read them ourselves.  Not so, I suspect, with the conventional close readings of literary critical monographs, which I’m assuming are pretty well useless with authors or works we are unfamiliar with or uninterested in.  Am I wrong about this?  Because my intuition tells me that close-reading monographs are books that are only useful for those who are already committed to the value and interest of the works studied.  And this might account for the decline of such single author books, in the absence of a clear consensus about which books to focus on.

Although I usually disagree with Bauerlein, I think he has a point about the overproduction of literary criticism, and think that LP and Myers are probably correct to focus on literary history.  (That’s why I’m writing one myself)  But while I was mulling over this, I realized that I’d just read an entire series of exchanges on EMOB and on this blog about the allure of “machine reading” books for literary criticism.   And I myself get nervous about being led through a huge database without reading everything myself, and allowing the machine to do the searching for me.  But then I realized that we often read literary histories for exactly this kind of searching/sorting through of possible leads for our own research.  So why not use such “finding aids,” especially when we have an entire category of scholarship devoted to producing such “aids”?  Or is this too deflating a description of our own scholarship?