Category Archives: Gender

The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies

As you’re all thinking about panel proposals for next year’s ASECS, we’re going to revisit the conversation from a panel at last year’s meeting:  “The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies.”  Over the new few weeks we will be posting essays based on comments delivered at this panel, as well as some follow-up ideas that were not presented at the panel.

The inspiration for the panel that generated the essays that will follow came from two directions: first, from an observation that the Group for Early Modern Cultural Students (GEMCS), originally conceived to bring together scholars from a range of pre-1900 fields, has been attracting mostly students and professors in the field formerly known as “Renaissance;” and second, from the publication of William B. Warner and Clifford Siskin’s essay, “Stopping Cultural Studies.”  As chair of the Cultural Studies Caucus of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS), I proposed a session that combined these topics called “The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies.”  While these two topics are not obviously related, both share certain challenges.  GEMCS had lively conferences, but never quite succeeded as much as was hoped in opening up the possibility of more integrated and far-reaching considerations of literature and culture across field divisions.  Partly, I think, this is due the fact that while twenty years ago the phrase “early modern” offered a range of possibilities, it has now, at least professionally, simply replaced “Renaissance,” so younger scholars coming into the discipline cannot be blamed for (mistakenly) assuming that a paper on Jane Austen would have no place at a GEMCS meeting.   Perhaps, though, there is a deeper issue as well and that recent stresses on the profession as a whole have made field distinctions even more important. If you can only go to one conference every year, it might be a better investment to seek out other specialists.  While decisions based on travel budgets are understandable, we nevertheless need to continue to think about ways to promote research and teaching that move beyond the limits of periodization.

While some of the papers on the panel considered periodization, most more centrally addressed the problem of Cultural Studies.  Warner and Siskin propose that we abandon the entire enterprise called “cultural studies,” although they do not offer an alternative and insist that they are under no obligation to do so.  They see two main problems with cultural studies as currently practiced: (1) that the term “culture” hides the doubled meanings of Culture (meaning great works of art, literature, etc.) and culture (meaning everyday practices, “non-literary” texts, etc.) and that (2) as a result we have been unable to “transcend previous limits” (104).  Much as we try to move beyond them, we keep getting pulled back to traditional objects of study and traditional disciplinary boundaries. 

            The panel attracted considerable attention, perhaps in part as a result of the rhetorical flair involved in telling one’s colleagues to cut it out.  Warner and Siskin are right that “culture” is a “Teflon category.”  But if the category contains so much slippage, how will we be able to tell when we’ve stopped?  Wouldn’t anything produced after stopping be easily folded back into this category?  How is “remediation”—the only suggestion of an alternative in the essay—not part of “culture”?  Their suggestion to stop cultural studies is so intriguing, disturbing, and puzzling,  I think, because in practical terms—and as defined by Warner and Siskin– it translates into stopping literary scholarship altogether, as cultural studies has become so amorphous as to encompass everything but perhaps New Criticism, to which few are clamoring to return in its original restricted form.  Thus, I think this essay provokes a key professional anxiety of our moment: that we will be stopped altogether.

            Over the next month or two, we will be posting the brief comments written by the panelists who participated, who attended, and/or who have something to say about this issue.   These essays take seriously the possibly of stopping, but also explore ways to get started again.  They look at cultural studies in the broader context of disciplinary survival.  Some address how cultural studies has disturbed, challenged, and stretched departments and curricula.  And yet if, in spite of this turbulence, cultural studies ultimately, as Warner and Siskin suggest, preserves rather than upends, then maybe it has been the ally of literary study all along.  Warner and Siskin observe that cultural studies has insufficiently transformed institutional practice; some of the essays, however, record experiences of grappling with the opposite objection: that cultural studies has changed department offerings too much.  Both objections point to a concern that literature department curricula are somehow not aligned with the needs, desires, or ideal education of today’s students.  I wonder, then, if taking this common ground seriously might lead us to another way into the problem.  Perhaps we might think about ways to move from this one-way street to a two-ways street; that is, to think about what we want students to learn as not only shaped by our research programs, but as itself a partner in further inquiry.


Works Cited

Warner, William B. and Clifford Siskin. “Stopping Cultural Studies.” Profession (2008): 94-107. Print.


Women’s History Carnival 2011

March is Women’s History Month, and this year International Women’s Day (8 March) is 100 years old. To mark the occasion, the History Carnival is running a Women’s History blogging event throughout the month.

To mark International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month the History Carnival is inaugurating a special Women’s History Carnival for March 2011, for all blogs and blogging about the history of women, gender and feminism. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen yet, but hopefully it’ll be a bit different from the usual History Carnivals:

There will be at least one Carnival post, but we’d like to do much more than that! We’ll publicise any great blogging or themed events we come across (or you tell us about) and generally do our best to encourage discussion and bang the drum for women’s history.

And yes, that includes 18th-century literarature folk!

Ways you could take part in WHC11:

  • Write a blog post, and comment on other blogs – see the web page for recent activity
  • Nominate blog posts – your own and other bloggers’ – for the Carnival (see below)
  • Get discussion going on Twitter – the main tag is #whm; the tag for WHC is #whc11, and the tag for women historians on Twitter is #twitterstoriennes
  • Got any more suggestions? Get in touch!

I’ll be hosting the Carnival at Early Modern Notes on about 9 March, just after International Women’s Day. (There should be a second Carnival post towards the end of March as well, so don’t worry if you miss this one.) In addition to recent posts, there will be a selection of the best women’s history blogging since March last year, so you’re welcome to send your favourites too!

There are several ways you can nominate posts for the WHC:

1. The special nominations form for the WHC. (Don’t use the normal HC form for this one.)
2. Email me using my contact form.
3. On Twitter: send a tweet @historycarnival or @sharon_howard, or simply add the hashtag #whc11 to any tweet.
4. On tag a bookmark with whc11 and it will appear in the WHC Delicious feed.

Laptop Policy?

I’m not sure I agree with the writer from the New York Times who suggested that technology is turning all of us into Zombies, but I saw a few of the living dead in my classes last semester.

Let me emphasize a few.  Most of my students were lively and engaged; most participated in productively and imaginatively.  A few, however, spent every class period staring at their computer screens.    They barely even lifted their heads.  They didn’t seem to bother the other students (the infamous “cone of distraction” that some lecturers have noticed) because they generally sat in the back or along the side and tilted their screens so they were not visible to others.  Their midterm papers, however, showed no evidence whatsoever of familiarity with the material in spite of regular attendance. The papers did, interestingly, suggest that they were pretty decent students overall: they could write complete sentences, organize a paragraph, and interpret a piece of writing.  They utterly lacked, however, any of the contextual coordinates that classroom discussion so painstakingly provides, and thus made outrageous errors in their reading.

So you’re probably thinking: why do you let them bring laptops to class? Just solve the problem by banning the laptops.

Of course I considered this and have done it past semesters, but I’m not convinced that this is the best solution.  As mentioned, the zombie cohort was tiny; two to three students per class at most.  Many other students, by contrast, used their laptops to take notes.  It’s hard to object to this. Like these students, I find note-taking on a keyboard much easier and digital storage more congenial than the paper kind.  Further, in these challenging economic times, some students download the reading material instead of buying the books: it’s pretty easy to find a digital version of Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver’s Travels.

I was able to bring one of these zombies back into the world of the living.  I wrote to each of them that I thought their web-surfing was undermining their work.  One stopped coming to class. One subsequently looked up a few times. One recognized the truth of this analysis, went cold turkey, and wrote a much-improved final paper.  (So maybe when zombies learn to think for themselves they will no longer be condemned to endlessly demand other people’s brains.)

There has been much discussion in higher ed reporting about whether or not to allow laptops in the classroom, but it seems to me that we need a more subtle negotiation than simply being ‘for’ or ‘against’ it.  An on/off switch for the wireless internet would be great, but my classroom doesn’t have one.   I think overall that technology has improved my classes and I know that students have always found ways to distract themselves.  It might not even be fair to call them zombies: they could be doing engaged intellectual work on their laptops.  The problem is that they are doing it while I am trying to explain the difference between Whigs and Tories, so they end up not even knowing what they don’t know but at the same time have the illusion that they are learning the material because, after all, they came to class.  So as I reflect on what kinds of policies to include for next semester, I wonder how others have addressed this issue.

the “culturomics” approach to literary studies?

This is my belated response to the culturomics postings run by the NYTimes last month. The bottom line is that I wasn’t that impressed by the projects discussed there, but I do feel that projects like these have plenty of implications for the literary studies we might want to pursue over the next decade or two.  

From my own perspective, the biggest issue with both the N-Gram and the “culturomics” derived from it is that they seem to be research tools in search of an appropriate research problem, an impression that was reinforced by the sample problems discussed in the NYT piece.  Admittedly, the N-Gram does produce very suggestive visualizations of the frequency of selected key terms over time. Yet Googlebook’s notorious metadata and OCR problems render any spike or dip in the graphs suspect, and useless as evidence without further investigation. This means that the most interesting portions of the graph, the visible “changes,” are essentially off-limits to public discussion until problems like misdatings are cleared away.

The larger issue, though, as Geoffrey Nunberg has pointed out, is what exactly we think we are learning when we track the frequencies of particular words.  In one report, for example, counting the number of times the term “God” appears in Victorian writings  over time is supposed to tell us something about the long-term, large-scale process of secularization in 19th century British culture.  But even if we refuse to read or interpret the hundreds of novels contained in that database (as prescribed by Moretti’s now familiar notion of “distant reading”), we still need to read the results closely enough to produce a plausible interpretation of what they mean.   

For example, two digital scholars are convinced that the relative frequency of terms like “hope” and “happiness” between the beginning and end of the 19th century can tell us something interesting about the Victorian novel.  I am perfectly happy to entertain this idea. Yet how can this claim be tested except by reading and arguing in a very concrete way about some portion of the novels contained in that database?    In this respect, I think the veneer of positivism attached to this kind of project comes off pretty quickly, like a bad paint job, the moment we talk about the validation of such claims.  Because competing interpretations of the results would not be settled with “better” or more data, but by competing explanations with their respective warrants, evidence, and argumentative self-consistency.

In our own exchanges on this project, Ben Pauley pointed out me to this useful comparison between Mark Davies’ COHA project and culturomics, and I think Davies raises the key issues that should complicate any discussion of word frequencies and their significance for interpreting their shifts as evidence for cultural change:  the first issue, if I understand it properly, resides with the “collocates,” or nearby words, that indicate the conceptual clusters (and contextual frameworks) that particular words are embedded within (e.g., gay New York vs. gay Paris); the second, related to the first, is about synonymy, which again suggests the need to relate words to the specific groups of synonyms attached to a particular use (e.g., gay=brilliant, jolly, joking); the last is about genre, which remains an indispensable context for understanding the tacit and social dimensions of the word and its circulation. 

It seems to me that any counting of word frequencies, in the absence of this kind of information (e.g., in what contexts, in what surroundings, using which synonyms, with what kinds of other terms, do Victorian novelists mention God?) makes this sort of analysis unpersuasive.  And I do wish that the scholars pursuing this kind of analysis would familiarize themselve with the practices of conceptual history. In my view, Koselleck’s pioneering work in conceptual history seems closely related to the culturomics style of statistical analyses of culture, though with a vastly enlarged set of corpora to search through.  But perhaps the main value of such statistical research is to perform a kind of defamiliarization exercise on our historical understandings of a period, so that we can look beyond existing histories to construct our own?

Having said all this, I do wish that there were ways to attach the power of the distant reading paradigm to current practices in literary and cultural history.  Thoughts, anyone?


Advocating for the Humanities

Readers of “The Long Eighteenth” might want to visit this new site on humanities advocacy:

“4Humanities is a site created by the international community of digital humanities scholars and educators to assist in advocacy for the humanities.

“4Humanities is both a platform and a resource.   As a platform, 4Humanities will stage the efforts of humanities advocates to reach out to the public.  We are a combination newspaper, magazine, channel, blog, wiki, and social network.  We solicit well-reasoned or creative demonstrations, examples, testimonials, arguments, opinion pieces, open letters, press releases, print posters, video “advertisements,” write-in campaigns, social-media campaigns, short films, and other innovative forms of humanities advocacy, along with accessibly-written scholarly works grounding the whole in research or reflection about the state of the humanities.

“As a resource, 4Humanities will provide humanities advocates with a stockpile of digital tools, collaboration methods, royalty-free designs and images, best practices, new-media expertise, and customizable newsfeeds of issues and events relevant to the state of the humanities in any local or national context.  Whether humanities advocates choose to conduct their publicity on 4Humanities itself or instead through their own newsletter, Web site, blog, and so on, we want to help with the best that digital-humanities experts have to offer.”

Reading with ECCO

Here and elsewhere, there have been various discussions of exciting projects made newly possible with digitized eighteenth-century texts.  I’m wondering, though, what strategies other people have developed for just reading them.

I have come up with three options.  First, you can read them on a computer screen.  I have done this by opening the ECCO document in the top half of the screen and my Endnotes program on the bottom half, taking notes as I read.  I have managed to get through several novels and travel narratives this way, but it’s not so easy to sit at the computer reading for long stretches and a far cry from curling up in a chair with a book, a pencil, and sticky notes.  Reading directly on the computer screen for that long can also trigger a migraine for me.  Alternatively, then, you can print out the documents and read them like you would anything else.  This, however, gets expensive, generates much clutter, and feels wasteful.  Further, since eighteenth-century books have so many fewer words on the page than most modern books, you get a very bulky document that can’t easily be carried around. The third possibility would be to transfer the files to an e reader.  When I first ordered my Kindle, I thought I would be able to convert ECCO documents to PDFs and load them onto the Kindle.  The first generation Kindles, though, did not do well with PDFs.  Sometime they worked, but other times they would come out blurry and/or tiny.  I have heard that the new Kindles support PDFs better, but that still leaves the problem of taking notes. Profhacker recently reported on an iPad app that allows you to highlight on PDFs.  I was intrigued by this possibility until I saw a guy using an Entourage Edge in the waiting room of the doctor’s office.  He turned out to work for Entourage and gave me and another curious patient a demonstration of this device.  With the Entourage, it looks like you can load a PDF or a Word document and actually take notes on the document.  You can then access only the pages with notes on them, saving the tedium of having to flip through the entire document.  The Entourage is heavier and bulkier than an iPad or a Kindle, but I’m thinking it might be a good way to read ECCO documents, manuscripts, and even student papers.  It has the grayish contrast screen that I like so much in the Kindle and it has a USB port for easy transfer of PDF files.

I’m interested in hearing about how others may have solved this problem before I invest in yet another electronic device.

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.