I was very lucky to have the chance to talk to two of the leading voices on digital humanities when they very kindly agreed to take part in a filmed discussion at ASECS annual meeting, in San Antonio, March 2012. George Williams is an associate professor of English (specialising in the 18thC) at the University of South Carolina and will be familiar to many from the ProfHacker pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Education; Seth Denbo is a historian of eighteenth-century England and involved with MITH, Project Bamboo, the IHR Seminar in Digital History and is on the faculty of the Maryland Institue for Technology in the Humanities. (Using iMovie to film the discussion in my hotel room was a bit of an experiment – which is by way of an apology for any impairment in sound and /or visual quality. The interview is split into two parts).
What happened after 2007? Well, the move to using ECCO just for presentations worked better with the exploratory aim of this strand of the module, but the module itself ceased to exist shortly after a wide-ranging re-organisation of Bath Spa’s undergraduate degree system.
I ended up devising a second-year module on Gender and Eighteenth-Century Fiction and -surprise, surprise – I wanted to embed the use of ECCO within that. This was a very different proposition to the introductory level module within which I first experimented using ECCO. This was a more demanding module and more focused topic and resulted in some successes and partial set-backs
On the one hand it enabled me to still use ECCO ‘Mark lists’: this time I had list-titles such as ‘Early Feminisms’, ‘Femininity and Sexuality’, Femininity and Manners’, ‘Gentlemanliness’, ‘Unmanly behaviours’ and ‘Sensibility and Sentiment’. These links, usually containing 4-6 titles, included poems, conduct essays, tracts and sermons. The aim was to give students the materials to historicize their readings of the novels on the course (Fantomina, Roxana, Joseph Andrews, A Sentimental Journey, Evelina, The Wrongs of Woman). And, as in my first-year module, aware that some of the texts were very long, I advised that judicious use of the search function and the ‘e table of contents’ might help navigation.
The problems with that was, given the course’s primary object of study had to be the novels, any use of ECCO was necessarily subordinated to the understanding of the modules themes of gender and 18thC fiction. Related to this, students’ use and understanding of this material had to be more than a rather fun exploration of 18thC culture (as was the case in the 2007 first-year module): students at this level and for this type of thematic module would have to demonstrate an ability relate the novels to this historical material in a meaningful way. What this meant in practice was that the use of ECCO material had to be restricted to the one written assessment large enough to enable students to produce that kind of historicized reading (a 2,500 word essay – and even then I think that may be too small). Secondly, I had to allow seminars in the course to be set aside for students to look specifically at this 18thc contextual material, but not too many so as to take time away from the study of the novels.
On the whole, using ECCO in this way has again enabled students to see with their own eyes (‘long s’ and all – although one student has recently claimed to stop noticing it!) what the eighteenth century was thinking and writing about male and female behaviour. In seminars there is quite a lot of goggling at the attitudes towards women, some lovely critical comparisons between 18thC feminisms and 21st feminisms; and some initial surprise that male behaviour had its own policing too. In their written work, those students who took some time over selecting their contextual material produced more sophisticated essays; those students who relied rather too much on key-word searching tended to drop in unsuccessful or uncontextualised quotations.
At this stage, I have a nagging feeling that there’s a better way of embedding ECCO. Watch this space.
This is a case study from 2007 outlining something I tried out using ECCO in an assessment on a first-year undergraduate module on 18thC literature and culture. It was also published on the English Subject Center website: it can be found here alongside other e-learning projects (the centre is now unfortunately defunct). A follow-up post will detail my current thinking about embedding ECCO into undergraduate modules.
Using Eighteenth-Century Collections Online as a learning and teaching resource
This reports on my experience in building the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO) database into a first-year undergraduate module. The aim was to enable students to experience directing their own research using eighteenth-century editions. The report also considers how the problems of assessment and the nature of a very large database of diverse texts from an unfamiliar period were addressed.
Background / Context
My university having recently invested in ECCO, I was keen to look into its potential as a teaching resource (being already familiar with it as a research tool):
Could it be something other than merely a download-type resource to supply a module with a ‘set’ text?
Could students begin to use it as a research tool for themselves?
Could it provide a unique (and scholarly) learning experience for students?
Could it be a way of building an interest in the eighteenth century that might be sustained throughout their undergraduate (and postgraduate) experience?
Activities / Practices
My first opportunity was a first-year eighteenth-century survey module called ‘Eighteenth-Century Studies’. This twelve week module included a non-assessed presentation so this was used an opportunity for students to use ECCO material. Aware that non-assessed assignments – especially with something new and unfamiliar – do not always attract full participation, the presentation was tied to an assessment: it would be a formative ‘dry run’ for an essay which would be a more focussed and written-up version of the presentation. It was made clear that the object of this project was not to present an academically rigorous paper of literary analysis, but rather an opportunity for students to dip their toes into a diverse range of eighteenth-century topics, explore what might intrigue them, and begin to widen their knowledge of this period. The presentations were described in the module handbook as ‘a talk (of 5–10 minutes ) which successfully engages the interest of our group: a mixture of informing and – hopefully! – entertaining the class.’ One of the problems was going to be how to convert this into an essay: the danger was the potential for students to treat the essay as a project of description rather than analysis. To this end, students were advised to write an essay title/question in consultation with me that would help them organise their analysis when it come to writing their essays.
One of the other main problems was in guiding students in their use of this massive database of thousands of titles: the sheer breadth of material on ECCO would pose a challenge to a first year student’s understandably limited search techniques and their lack of familiarity with the eighteenth century. This problem was solved using ECCO’s ‘Marked List’ function. Rather than merely let the students loose on this huge database, the scope of the project was given some boundaries by my compiling lists of texts (approximately 6-12) under a variety of topics (which were: Bath; How to be a (Gentle)man; How to be a Lady; Slavers and Abolitionists; Slave voices; Women poets; Feminisms; The South Seas; Voyagers and Shipwrecks; The Plague). After I had compiled each Marked List, the URL for the list was cut and pasted into the module’s Virtual Learning Environment (Blackboard VLE). Students were then able to access individual texts from ECCO under each topic list on or off campus. The use of these directed lists enabled students to still direct their own learning and research: they were free to choose their topics and had to search and organise the material themselves.
Guidance on the use of ECCO was given in weeks three and six (presentations were to be given in weeks ten and eleven). The nature of the actual texts varied enormously: from collections of poems, short prose pieces, plays, sermons, to very large narratives of voyages, historical surveys, and political tracts. Given this, students were not expected to read everything under each topic, or even, if it was a particularly long text, all of a single text. To this end, they were guided (through example searches) on the use of the ‘Search this work’ and the ‘eTable of Contents’ functions to navigate the longer texts and select quotations. I was also aware that students would be presented with texts that actually looked strange – to this end I summarised the main features and significance (or lack of) eighteenth-century typography. The ‘ECCO projects’, as they came to be called, were worked on over the Easter break (a lucky chance of timetabling, otherwise extra time would have had to found, possibly by replacing seminars set aside for ‘set’ texts).
The results of the ECCO projects were encouraging. The presentations, allowing for differences in presentational skills, revealed that the material had piqued students’ curiosity. While the best ones demonstrated an ability to range confidently across a breadth of material from their chosen topic, even the less assured students engaged reasonably well with their chosen texts; again, this was encouraging given the unfamiliar terrain they were asked to explore.
Some examples of the texts examined: one presentation focussed on the contrasting shipwreck narratives of Woodes Rogers (on Selkirk), and the ‘Nottingham’ disaster. A number of students were interested in women: some looked at ‘Feminisms’ and quoted usefully from Mary Astell’s Serious Proposal, Mary Hays’ Appeal to the Men of Great Britain, Mary Robinson’s Thoughts on the Condition of Woman, and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Thoughts on the Education of Daughters; others were intrigued by the conduct manuals for women, quoting liberally from Halifax’s The Lady’s New-year Gift and John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to his Daughter. One presentation displayed an impressive breadth of reading by illustrating the different styles of masculinity on show in texts as varied as John Brown’s Estimate of the Manners and Times, Chesterfield’s Letters, Nathaniel Lancaster’s The Pretty Gentleman, and Timothy Greated’s An Essay on Friendship. The other main area that generated interest was slavery (understandably, given the bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade): one student discussed ‘Slavers and Abolitionists’ quoting usefully from Antony Benezet, James Ramsay, Ottobah Cuguano, and John Newton, while a number chose to examine slave voices and centred their discussions on the narratives of Ukawsaw Gronnisaw, Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cuguano.
The quality of the resulting essays, however, was rather varied and not only reflected individual ability but also the extent to which they had consulted with me: the most successful ones had a focussed title/ question and demonstrated an ability organise their material into an argument; weaker essays tended to be less focussed, overly descriptive and lacking in analysis.
At the end of the module I handed out a questionnaire (11 respondents out of 17) focussing on the ECCO projects, divided into three sections: ‘Using ECCO’, ‘The Material’, ‘Assessment’. Everyone found it easy to use ECCO, and felt the guidance offered was helpful. About half preferred to use the ‘Search this work’ function, suggesting that they could locate their material precisely this way. The other half (approximately) preferred to use the ‘eTable of Contents’ as their main way of searching, especially for navigating long texts and where chapter headings clearly announced their topics (although it was pointed out that this varied hugely with some texts having no chapter headings at all). A small few used both functions in parallel.
On the material, everyone found something to interest them, either because it followed up an existing interest (e.g. the role of women or black voices) or because it revealed the otherness of this period’s ideas. A number commented on the otherness of the texts themselves, finding that reading a text in the ‘original format’ in itself interesting. Some felt that so much material (even with these lists) was ‘quite daunting’, but even then felt this to be a positive aspect. Most respondents felt there were enough topics, though a few felt that there might have been more (suggestions included ‘the American War of Independence’, ‘Hanoverian rule’, ‘Satire’).
On the assessment, a number agreed that it was appropriately assessed. On the presentation opinion was mixed: a few remarked on how the presentation was a useful preparation for the essay, and a number felt it was useful for oral delivery skills. However, a large number of respondents felt that the presentation should have attracted an assessment weighting to reflect the effort spent on them.
Reflecting on this survey and the essay results, in future the ECCO topics will be assessed purely by presentation. The essay format does not easily lend itself to the diversity of material and the modest aims of the ECCO project (the essay will be used to assess other aims of the module). Indeed, in the context of a first-year module introducing the eighteenth century the presentation is potentially a far more suitable and sensitive mode of assessment.
Overall, I was encouraged by this experiment and the willingness of students to jump in and engage with what is for most of us still a resource for academic research. By using ECCO at first year level, I hope to plant the seeds of a scholarly attitude towards research – and the eighteenth century – that students can then develop in subsequent years.
Part of the excitement is the further option to create – and be credited as editor of – an entire text from your corrected OCR text. Gale’s release of the texts though 18thConnect to be corrected by TypeWright aims to have those texts re-imported in Gale’s database. But it seems Gale is also offering the chance for those corrected texts to be published either (possibly via 18thConnect or at least peer-reviewed by them) as digital editions or via Gale as a print text.
Now this is the odd point – what does Gale get out of releasing into the wilds of the open-access world its texts? ECCO isn’t cheap and a number of universities have spent a considerable amount of money for it; even JISC’s one-stop interface for both EEBO and ECCO isn’t much cheaper. Gale’s income would presumably suffer. One might be tempted to think that both of those moves to wider access suggest Gale’s anxiety over the continuing authority of ECCO (with its old OCR software, its reliance on microfilmed texts and small images) and the sustainability of this kind of database publishing model. One need only look at databases such as London Lives, or the William Godwin’s Diaries or the Digital Miscellenies Index to see where digital resources are going. It looks as if Gale is trying to maintain ECCO’s relevance by opening it up to wider access, paradoxically undermining potential income. Perhaps they figure that the market for ECCO is saturated and that there is nothing more to loose: they would reap the kudos from keeping up with the general thrust of more recent digital resources towards open access (there’s probably a buzzier-sounding phrase than that, I’m sure). As for those texts that would be released for publication outside of ECCO, they might figure that this would amount to only selected areas or authors and that the vast majority of texts on ECCO (non-canonical and found only through specialist searching) would be unaffected and so would continue to be the USP of ECCO.
I’m quite excited by a recent development that aims to improve the OCR-generated texts of ECCO.
As my colleague Ian Gadd pointed out (in an as yet unpublished note) searching ECCO is a hit and miss affair, especially since the orginal OCR-generated text often failed to read the ‘long s’ correctly. The weakness of ECCO’s OCR text was also, inadvertantly, revealed by JISC’s latest project ‘Historic Books’. This is a single interface for both EEBO and ECCO (and soon some 19thC collections) and can give users direct acces to the OCR text of ECCO – and it’s easy to see that this is often in poor shape. Sayre Greenfield has helpfully noted some shortcuts to help get around this in a piece for Early Modern Online Bibliographies here.
More radically, Gale have teamed up with the good people of 18thConnect to offer users the chance to use TypeWright software to correct the orginal OCR text line-by-line. I’m a heavy user of ECCO and always try to get my students to use it as much as possible too. I have an un-researched hunch that searching is of increasing importance as readers – in parallel with or in some cases replacing ‘normal’ linear reading – navigate and research etexts with key terms, looking for images, tropes, themes, specific turns of phrase or peculiarities of languge. So I’m quite excited by the possibility that searching on ECCO may eventually be much more reliable.