burney collection research assignment on Haywood and Davys

During our exchanges about Laura’s ECCO assignment last week, I mentioned that I’m currently using my trial access to the Burney collection (via EMOB) to break down the process of historical contextualization for my graduate students.  This is  in a seminar on Jane Austen and her 18th century novelistic predecessors, but it also focuses on the most effective ways to teach 18c novels to  students largely unfamiliar with novelistic conventions.

Since many of my students are MAs who are interested in or currently teaching in the high schools and community colleges around Houston, this seemed a good way to organize our discussions.  At the same time, I’m making an argument in this class about the value of undergraduate research and independent inquiry in literature classes.  Interestingly, it’s been my work in my undergraduate classes that’s been most instructive for me as I learn how to rework existing courses.

For this reason, I wanted to start weaning my students (and myself) away from conventional lecture-style instruction at every level of my teaching.  Yet this goal is surprisingly difficult, even in a graduate-level seminar, because of the comfortable division of labor that occurs when professors play the role of the expert.  Still, I want my students to experience first-hand the strategies I’ve been using lately (including course blogs, brief recursive research assignments, class portfolios, self-assessment essays, and so forth), so that they can put them to work themselves at some point.

The basic idea is that students use the course-blog not so much for the purposes of recollection (the deadly comprehension-test), but to dig up additional information and present it to the group for discussion.  That additional material, whether it comes from primary or secondary sources, will then be used as part of our more pointed discussion of the assigned texts (in this case, short novels by Haywood and Davys).

Below you’ll find the prompt for my first “Reading Question” on the course-blog, which takes off from our first class discussion about teaching pre-twentieth and twenty-first century literature to inexperienced students.  Students were expected to do this assignment over the weekend, to discuss their results on the blog in a few paragraphs, then bring in their examples to class the following Monday.  Students will do one blog post a week, and these will be collected into a graded portfolio along with a self-assessment essay at semester’s end.

Here’s the prompt:

Reading Question #1

During our discussion last Monday, some of you argued that, when teaching pre-twentieth century novels, contextualizing this fiction and its conventions should render them more accessible to students unfamiliar with pre-twentieth centuryf writing.  So the teacher’s job becomes one of creating a context that students can use to understand unfamiliar texts.

This is a very common prescription for teaching, but professional critics can be very vague about what they mean by “context,” or what the act of “contextualization” really entails.  So I think it’s worth examining these notions a little more closely.

On Monday, I agreed about the need for contextualization, but also noted that because contexts are not learned all at once, they must be learned (or assembled) by the student bit by bit, as part of a process that unfolds over time.  As I noted, reconceiving contextualization in this way makes the questions of selection and sequencing very important.  So rather than regard “the historical context” as a single, comprehensive narrative lecture provided by an instructor to a passive audience, I tend to regard contexts as multiple, overlapping, and discontinuous, to be assembled by students for their own purposes of problem-solving or argument.

To give you an idea of how we might approach contextualization in this manner, I am having this group assemble a number of potential contexts for understanding Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina (1725) or Mary Davys’ Reform’d Coquet (1724) on the basis of this sequence of questions:

  • Who wrote it? (Biographical context, courtesy of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entries for EH or MD, via the blog’s Resource page) [NB: links here go to the course-blog Resource page or directly to the UH library databases referred to here]
  • When was it published or written? (Chronology, courtesy of Alok Yadov’s Historical Outline, ditto)
  • What type of writing, or genre, does it represent? (e.g., the European novel? the 18th century English or British novel? a novel by a woman? or a piece of amatory fiction?)
  • What kind of audience is it intended for?

Note that according to historian-educator Sam Wineburg, these questions about Who?, When?, What Genre?, and What Audience?, are questions that are asked by historians before they even read a particular document.  (Wineburg calls it a “sourcing heuristic“) In other words, they are the preliminary questions about sources that help orient the historian, precede her reading, and guide her while she attempts to comprehend its meaning.

On the assumption that the British newspaper readers of 1724-25 might have also been able to read and understand Davys or Haywood, take the following steps:

  • While you read the Reform’d Coquet or Fantomina, choose one of these novels to assemble a running list of 4-5 possible themes (e.g., the masquerade, disguise, nunneries, etc.), events , figures and so forth that seem significant to the novel, and that might function as keywords for searching the Burney newspaper database.  [you only need to do this exercise for one of the novels]
  • Similarly, you should take 2-3 additional keywords from the ODNB, chronology, and other critical and historical accounts for your list.
  • Finish reading the novels
  • Once you’ve finished the books and assembled a list of 7-8 keywords, start experimenting with searches, and try to find one or two items that really seem to suggest some connection with the novel.  To narrow your search, try initially to find newspaper items from the year of publication, or at least within ten years, backwards or forwards, from the year of publication.
  • Write a paragraph that describes the item and why you think it relates to the author, her novel, or the historical moment in which it was published.  Either put it into the comments for this post (hit the comment button), or if you’re feeling more ambitious, upload the item and description into your own post.
  • Read the other items over the weekend, and bring your keywords and a copy of your item to class Monday.  We’ll discuss these at classtime.

OK?  Let me know if you get hung up on any stage of this process.  DM


11 responses to “burney collection research assignment on Haywood and Davys

  1. Anna Battigelli

    I like the way you provide a method for generating search terms. That helps overcome the first hurdle. I also like the request that students write a paragraph about the item presented.

    I will be curious to hear how well the full-text searching goes for your students. It will be particularly helpful to hear from you how effectively word-searching in Burney leads to sources that significantly contribute to a sense of the work’s context.

  2. Eleanor Shevlin


    Your reminder to students that the term “context” can signify multiple forms of material seems particularly useful.

    I did take a look at some of the initial posted results by students, and the assignment appears to be doing a good job of fostering thought about issues raised by the Haywood’s and/or Davys’s novel–and I also appreciated the feedback and suggestions you offered.

    • Thanks, Eleanor. I should also mention that my thinking about sourcing and the Sam Wineburg articles really came about after these exchanges with Carl over at Dead Voles. Wineburg’s articles seem the best breakdown I’ve found about how historians (and, by extension, historicist literary critics) construe sources, assemble corroborating texts, and assemble these into “contexts.”

  3. Anna, the responses were pretty good. Here’s a list of the topics covered:

    Deception, morality and social context in RQ
    Rape and servant girls (F)
    Discussion and consequences of unplanned pregnancy (F)
    Honour and reputation (F)
    Interregnum (RQ)
    The Vulnerabilities of Amoranda (RQ)
    Country/City in Fantomina
    Masquerade in 18c and Fantomina
    Dangers of flattery (RQ)
    “Unfortunate women” (F)
    Importance of virtue (F)
    Questions of vanity (RQ)

    All told, not a bad inventory of major themes/key concepts concerning these two novels. One of the interesting things was that students are vaguely aware of impact of social or political events on narratives, but sometimes lack a good vocabulary to talk about mediation, or historically specific vocabularies and practices. This issue was raised around the issue of “unplanned pregnancy,” (what’s a non-anachronistic way to search for it?) or the general awareness/salience of political metaphors like “interregnum.” So the next assignment will be about refining one’s keyword searches. My follow-up assignment will ask them to develop new keyword clusters to investigate using MUSE and JSTOR, to get a fuller understanding of the contexts they were assembling.

    My goal is to get them to think about the kinds of evidence they’d need to get more comprehensive answers to their specific questions and problems: social history? period dictionaries? secondary criticism? biography? etc. etc.

    Students did struggle a bit with the keyword searches, and tended to short-circuit the process a bit. It would have been nice to have had ECCO access for more period dictionaries, so they could play around with synonyms.

  4. This is terrific news for all of us. Maybe I’ll do follow-up on ECCO I and II in the classroom. Thanks, Anna and Eleanor. DM

  5. I am sorry to arrive so late to this great exchange. Dave, I think your prompt is fascinating and extremely productive. Too often I felt, even as a beginning grad student, that we were all expected to know the method, and so navigated seminar discussions and paper-writing actually finding out as we went what our methodology is. This exercise is valuable for a number of reasons, and one of these is that it eases students into the methods of our discipline as active participants, making them question connections and become aware of anachronistic vocabulary, etc. while also teaching them how to use the resources.

    Your interest about students not having vocabulary to describe mediation, etc. made me think about a conference we are organizing at Columbia, it will take place next week, and I know many of you are far away, but I thought you would be interested in reading the panel descriptions as well as our keynote speaker’s summary of his talk. Here it is: http://www.historiesofreading.blogspot.com/

  6. P.S. You are welcome to spread the word and to leave comments on the blog, potential questions for panelists/keynote speaker. I am planning on writing up a post where I will summarize the conference exchanges for posterity and, better yet, with hopes to create an ongoing conversation. All best, Adela.

  7. Dave Mazella

    Thanks for your comments, Adela. Tools like ECCO and EEBO are very powerful, but students at any level need guiding principles to know how to use them in a discriminating way. For some reason, making the pedagogical issues explicit has helped me figure out what I need to do with my grad students.

    I’ve posted an announcement of the conference, which sounds great, at EMOB, as well.

    Best, DM

  8. Thank you for spreading the word, Dave! It is much appreciated.

    Both ECCO and EEBO have been crucial for my dissertation project, and I have actually been spending a great deal of time with them in the past three days. There is much to be said about how these new tools enhance our research and how they even shape the questions we raise as we do research. But in my excitement for keyword searches, for example, I have also found out the limits of an argument based on such searches. My project revolves around the term “species.” ECCO and EBBO have been invaluable tools as I tried to grasp during the earlier stages of the project, the valence of the term in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But, as your assignment teaches us, it is then necessary to return to the texts and think about the nature of the connections we are making and the extent of these as well. We are doing two kinds of research, very different kinds, which I think my colleague Alice would call the “fox” and “hedgehog” research methods. ECCO allows us to emulate the fox and cover lots of territory, if somewhat superficially. While close reading and research in history and literary criticism allow us to dig deeper into the connections, like a hedgehog. Pardon the anthropomorphic examples!

  9. Adela, I agree completely with what you’re saying here, especially about the need to begin to reflect upon the limits of these tools, so that we might use those limits to refine our research process further.

    Reflection upon the nature of our sources, and how those were collected, is crucial, because it tells you what might be missing or overrepresented.

    There are also questions of context and discourse, too, and those questions are in some sense extra-verbal and institutional: e.g., what kinds of people, at what time, and with what background, credentials, education, etc., might have used this term at a particular time?

    For my cynicism book, for example, one of my discoveries was that use of the term in the 18c was heavily correlated with a particular kind of rhetorical education and background. So Henry Fielding and Tom Brown, yes; other writers, not so much. etc. etc.

    So, as impressive as the results from ECCO and EEBO searches are, part of the challenge is knowing why particular kinds of texts and examples are turning up together. It’s an enormous challenge.