Monthly Archives: November 2014

Eighteenth-century literature and the digital undergraduate

Bw1i4-yIcAAuCSj[This is a slightly amended version of a post that originally appeared on the blog of the North American Conference of British Studies]

Over the past couple of years I’ve been guiding some final year undergraduate students to create online digital editions of literary texts from the eighteenth century (see here, here, and here). To me, getting students to work with digital technology alongside eighteenth-century British Literature is now an exciting, but also essential, facet of my teaching. So I thought I would share how I got here with a brief overview of some developments, exercises and courses I’ve picked up in my own browsing over the past few years that teach eighteenth-century literature and are inspired by digital humanities.[1]


The huge acceleration of the digitisation of historical texts in the past decade and a half has been the catalyst for a trickle-down effect from research to teaching practices. Released in 2003, and as one of the biggest databases of eighteenth-century material, Eighteenth-century Collections Online (ECCO) arguably generated some the first reflections on using digital resources to teach eighteenth-century literature at undergraduate level: see my own 2007 paper and the many posts on teaching with ECCO on Anna Batigelli’s Early Modern Online Bibliography blog. The issue of cost and accessibility aside, the exponential rise of such resources – such as the Burney Newpapers database, English Broadside Ballads, and Old Bailey Online – has enabled students to enrich their knowledge of eighteenth-century literary culture: they were able to see unusual and non-canonical texts, to examine literary works in the light of historical or cultural ideas specific to the period or even decade, and to pose invigorating questions about literary value.

Blogging and wikis

This initial phase crossed over with tutors and professors experimenting with writing assignments and the different engagement with literary texts that might be enabled by digital platforms such as the wiki or the blog post. See for example, the work of Tonya Howe (Marymount University); the course run by Emily M. N. Kugler (Colby College) Histories and Theories of the 18thC British Novel; and Prison Voices 1700-1900, which has for example, this piece on Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (this via Helen Rogers, Liverpool John Moores University). Adrianne Wadewitz (now sadly deceased) was also a leading experimenter using Wikipedia as a teaching tool. In this vein, Ula Klein has also recently written about her summer course on eighteenth-century women poets that involves the creation of wikis (here).

Beyond the blog

Sharon Alker (Whitman College) and Benjamin Pauley (Eastern Connecticut SU) reflected on using a variety of tools to teach Defoe including Second Life and Google maps. Laura Linker (High Point University) asks her Gothic novel students to use Google Earth to map narrative journeys, and even Second Life as a way of entering into characterization. In a course entitled ‘Remediating Samuel Johnson’, John O’Brien (University of Virginia) set up a collaborative digital anthology of Samuel Johnsons’ works using texts accessed via 18thConnect (significantly, a platform that begins to deal with the problem of access). John’s aim was explicitly student-centred: ‘[m]y hunch is that students will have a good idea of what students like themselves need to know to make sense of challenging eighteenth-century texts.’ Students of Rachel Sagner Buurma (Swarthmore College) experience hands-on work with a wonderful digital resource the Early Novels Database – see the students’ own blogs here. In a different course Rachel asks students create experimental and imaginative bibliographical descriptions of unusual and non-canonical eighteenth-century novels, see here.

Media shifts

Also fascinating are those courses and projects that use the very medium of digital technology to enable student to grasp the eighteenth-century’s own preoccupation with changing forms and media. As Rachael Scarborough King (New York University) suggests: ‘[d]rawing such connections between the experimentation and advances of eighteenth-century print culture and our own period of media transformation can offer a crucial foothold for students encountering eighteenth-century texts for the first time.’ Rachel asks students to write blog posts incorporating different adaptations of English literature as a way of getting a sense of these texts’ original meaning, form and transmission. In a course devised by Mark Vareschi (Wisconsin-Madison) he sets an ‘experimental assignment in digital composition and adaptation’ tasking students to tweet, 140 characters at a time Samuel Richardson’s Pamela as they were reading the novel. The course designed by Evan C. Davis (Hampden-Sydney College), Gutenberg to Google: Authorship and the Literature of Technology, also pays close attention to the form of literature in this period. In ‘Friday assignments’ there are intriguing tasks such as comparing how we read via print and via e-readers, and using online resources about typography and the Letter M Press app to enable students to re-create and reflect upon the physicality of print in the hand-press era.

I’m about to run my own digital literary studies course focusing on the eighteenth century this coming academic year, and I’ve found the work of others in this field fascinating and tremendously inspiring.[2] My thanks to everyone for letting me link to their courses and students’ projects.

[1] See Rachel Schneider’s blog post Eighteenth-Century Literature meets Twenty-First Century Tech, which reviewed the SHARP roundtable at ASECS 2014, organised by Katherine M. Quinsey, ‘Wormius in the Land of Tweets: Archival Studies, Textual Editing, and the Wiki-trained Undergraduate.’ Quotations in this post are from the authors’ proposals for the Digital Humanities Caucus panel ‘Digital Pedagogies’, organised by Benjamin Pauley and Stephen H. Gregg. The phrase ‘inspired by digital humanities’ is my deliberately broad definition that covers the wide variety of uses of digital technology and digital resources across the courses I’ve found. Since my particular interest is in eighteenth-century literature, if you are interested in syllabi that are focused on digital humanities beyond literature, or beyond the eighteenth century, then there are superb bibliographies here. Because I’m most interested in how these tools have been brought into the undergraduate classroom, I’ve not discussed here the (impressive and exemplary) graduate work in courses run by Lisa Maruca (see Mechanick Exercises), or Allison Muri’s Grub Street Project. For an excellent set of tips and examples see Adeline Koh’s essay ‘Introducing Digital Humanities Work to Undergraduates.’

[2] In this context I should acknowledge my debt to George Williams (University of South Carolina Upstate). George’s own course – despite being an eighteenth-centuryist – is focused on an earlier media shift, and is organized around Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.