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