MLA 2012: The Future of Early British Studies

A Marketplace of Ideas? The Future of Early British Literary Studies

Presiding: Robyn Malo, Purdue Univ., West Lafayette; Manushag Powell, Purdue Univ., West Lafayette

1. “Problems for the Future,” Helen Deutsch, Univ. of California, Los Angeles

2. “Curricular Requirements and the Problems of the Present,” Seth Lerer, Univ. of California, San Diego

3. “Solutions?” Emily Hodgson Anderson, Univ. of Southern California

The subject of this panel was the challenges and opportunities facing Early British Studies in the current climate. What kind of future does Early British Studies have in higher education?  How can we engage students?  The panelists considered these questions in various ways.

Helen Deutsch looked back in order to look forward, we might say.  She implicitly argued against the suspicion that Early British Studies have no relevance to what people care about now.  Her strategy was to demonstrate in fascinating detail the influence of Jonathan Swift over Edward Said.  She reminded us that Said had long planned a book on Swift; she suggested the profound connections between the kind of public intellectual that Said became and vigorous eighteenth-century models for such a position.

The next two panelists focused on student engagement with the period.  Seth Lerer discussed the challenges of teaching Early British Literature to a new generation of students.  He described a large lecture class he was teaching at San Diego, in which the majority of students spoke English as a second language and only one had brought the book.  The rest were reading the material on their iPads, laptops, and even iPhones.  Yet in spite of this set-up, the talk did not turn curmudgeonly.  These students were welcome on his lawn, and he took seriously the challenge of communicating with them.  He proposed that we include the history of technology in the way we teach Early British Literature, drawing connections between the move to the digital and the transition to the codex.  He argued that this kind of contextualized narrative would be consistent with the discipline itself, suggesting that one of the distinguishing characteristic of humanities disciplines was concern with its own history.  The sciences, he pointed out, supersede their history and thus have little interest in what came before.

Finally, Emily Anderson offered some thoughts about the problem of “relevance.”  She noted tensions in eighteenth-century courses between our impulse to historicize and the student desire to find themselves in the literature, collapsing those historical differences.  She pointed out that students often come to literature classes out of a desire to write their own story.  Her strategy, which she has found to be effective, has been to use this to her advantage and cultivate this impulse, but then also, we might say, to theorize the impulse itself.  For this she uses Tristram Shandy, though a difficult text for undergraduates, as a model, which is after all the story of someone writing himself into being. She has even started to offer students a creative option to the usual critical paper, although they also need to discuss their choices and strategies in a critical way.

Overall, a worthy and engaging panel, filled with great ideas about how to bring Early British Studies into the 21st Century.


3 responses to “MLA 2012: The Future of Early British Studies

  1. Thanks for this report on what sounds like a very timely panel, with lots of interesting suggestions for helping students engage with the period and its writers. I could imagine a course that would show how various 17th and 18th century writers debated the impact of technology (I’m thinking about passages like Ben Franklin’s description of his time in London as a young printer, or Swift’s descriptions of gunpowder in Gulliver). That would demand a more concrete, more capacious reading of Enlightenment than we often provide in our contextualizations. But I would always argue that improving engagement with this period’s literary writings also requires giving students opportunities to research independently the non-literary topics and genres that arise in their readings.

  2. Laura Rosenthal

    That would be a good course. You could also talk about Oroonoko’s fascination with navigational technology and Satan’s invention of gunpowder in Paradise Lost.

  3. You know, in 18c literary studies, if we tell this story at all, we tend to discuss elite phenomena like the Royal Society and the rise of experimental science, whereas it’s the democratization of knowledge and diffusion of technological advances that probably are most in keeping with Enlightenment ideology. Of course, this shift toward technology brings economics, commerce, and market society into the picture as well. I’m thinking that improved agricultural and manufacturing processes would be part of this story.