Category Archives: Pedagogy

Digital editing with undergraduates: some reflections

Digital Editing Project outline and Digital editions criteria

[Added 2015]

In 2012 I started supervising an English undergraduate dissertation: this was a online digital edition and it was my first experience of supervising a student’s digital project. What follows is a joint blog post of two parts – one from me and the other from Jess MacCarthy (the student) – that reflects upon our experiences. You can see the final online edition here:

pillory banner


Thoughts from the me, the supervisor

A couple of years ago, I decided to learn a little more about the back-end end of digitized primary resources. I attended a boot-camp into the why and how of encoding, using XML encoding and the protocols of the TEI, at the Digital Humanities Summer School at Oxford University. Just over a year ago (late Spring 2012) I decided that the best way to learn is to teach. Simultaneously, I wanted to conduct a trial on producing a digital edition of a Defoe text that used up-to-date protocols of digital editing as well as the open-access ethos of the great majority of current digitization projects. So I asked our 3rd year English undergraduates whether anybody would be willing to do this for their dissertation project. Luckily, I had a volunteer, Jessica McCarthy.

I left it up to Jess to decide which Defoe texts she would like to work on: like any large-scale project, sustaining enthusiasm is essential. But it also meant that Jess would find a lot out for herself about Defoe’s writings. However, an important factor was that I was not expecting Jess to spend time transcribing the text and so we had to source a reliable electronic copy in plain text. This would give Jess the freedom to decide how she wanted to encode it and how it would be presented online. However, it also occurred to me that the question of a ‘reliable’ electronic copy in plain text was an interesting issue of discussion in itself: what different kinds of texts and what kind of reliability are offered by, for example, Project Gutenberg, Google Books, Jack Lynch’s Eighteenth-Century Resources, or Romantic Circles? Examples that directly raised other questions were close by: at Bath Spa University we are lucky enough to have access to the large-scale digital resources of EEBO and ECCO. Texts accessed via these different resources come in various forms: digital facsimiles, plain text transcriptions from post-1800 print editions, hyperlinked and encoded texts, or a combination of plain text and facsimile texts. So this first stage of the project actually involved a deeper understanding of the nature of existing electronic resources, databases and archives, and would more effectively immerse Jess in important questions concerning the format, usability and access to historical literary texts. How are issues of access related to the kind of texts one was accessing? What does the format of these texts have to say about how they can be used and who are using them? What processes are involved with the type of text available on these resources? What is a ‘text’ in a digital context anyway?

Such questions are important, first, because undergraduate students do not often understand why different online resources look and feel the way they do. So I try to make explicit to students the differences between a facsimile, an edition, and an encoded text and the significance of those differences for how the text is to be used and for whom. The facsimile usually presents no problem to understand; although, for example in the case of ECCO, the relation between the image and the text (unseen and what one actually searches) is not fully grasped by many undergraduates, which provokes some interesting discussion. Second, this contextual understanding is essential for students to decide what kind of edition they are going to create. In this I ask students to consider their readership or, as Dan Cohen put it in ‘The Social Contract of Scholarly Publishing’, the ‘demand side’ of  Cohen argued that the print model has built-in assumptions about value and audience: ‘The book and article have an abundance of these value triggers from generations of use, but we are just beginning to understand equivalent value triggers online.’ Jess, for her own project – as you can see – decided to provide two editions to appeal to a variety of readerships: one an online edition with hyperlinked notes and a textual commentary; the other an encoding of that text. (In this, we looked to an edition on Romantic Circles as our model).

So, back to an earlier stage of decision-making. If we were after plain text copies of eighteenth-century editions, and not texts that were edited at some point later, that left two options for sources: the Oxford Text Archive and 18thConnect. There are currently 728 texts attributed to Defoe available via 18thConnect and 121 via OTA. Despite the ease with which one can download texts in a variety of file formats from OTA, I deliberately steered Jess towards 18thConnect because of its use of TypeWright. This software enables users to correct a number of individual 18c texts released to 18thConnect by ECCO (as frequent users of ECCO will know, the text that users are able to search is a rather mangled version, the product of now dated OCR software trying to decipher 18c typography via microfilm).


I may well continue to use this, since the advantage for any student is not only the knowledge gained about the workings and limitations of large-scale digital resources like ECCO that might be normally taken for granted, but also the added perspective gained on the processes of transformation from material document to electronic text.

Why encode and why TEI/XML?

Most databases allow one to perform searches based on a variety of categories (author, place of publication, title, date etc) because the texts have been ordered and sorted according to these categories. One can perform ‘all text’ searches. But I struggled, at first, to explain the limitations of this kind of markup to my students. So I’ll give you a similar kind of example I gave to Jess in relation to ECCO. Let’s imagine I’m searching some works by Defoe and I want to find references to High Church clergyman Henry Sacheverell (bap. 1674, d. 1724). Unsurprisingly there are quite a few, but it misses a number of important Defoe poems. Now I happen to know Sacheverell is mentioned in More Reformation and in The Double Welcome but ECCO didn’t find these. Why? Because in The Double Welcome his name is spelt ‘Sachevrel’, and in More Reformation it is ‘Sachavrell’. We could of course put in alternative spellings or use fuzzy searching. But this wouldn’t find more oblique references such as the one in Hymn to the Pillory where his name is pseudo-anonymously presented as ‘S———ll’. A machine does not know this is Henry Sacheverell. Similarly, it would not correctly identify this if Defoe had ever called him ‘Henry’ or ‘old Sacha,’ or something more figurative like ‘the Devil in a pulpit’ that we human readers would be able to interpret. More importantly, what if we didn’t know how Defoe alluded to Sacheverell at all?

A machine searches for strings of symbols and cannot recognise that one string of symbols represents another different string of symbols unless we tell it that each of those particular combination of symbols represent the same named entity. As Lou Bernard put it “only that which is explicit can be digitally processed,” or to put it another way encoding is to “make explicit (for a machine) what is implicit (to a person)”.

For me, then, the project has enabled me to reflect upon strategies for teaching digital technology and identifying – or beginning to – what issues are essential to introduce to students: the how and why of digital editing.

Jess McCarthy’s perspective: decentering authority?

I’m going to be going on a slightly different track; I’ll be talking about how in some ways my edition decentres some of the authority of a traditional printed edition of a text.

It wasn’t until I’d starting researching my reflective essay that I realised that my edition achieves this, to an extent, through my encoding of variants in the XML version. Most modern scholarly editions of texts work on the basis of editorial interpretation and intervention in creating a definitive edition which most closely presents the editor’s understanding of the author’s intentions. These editions are usually created through extensive use of textual apparatus, such as tables of variants and considered reasoning supporting the inclusion of one variant and the exclusion of another. Digital methods of presenting texts have brought into sharper focus how this approach to assembling an edition is based largely on limitations of its publication media. Marilyn Deegan and Kathryn Sutherland pointed out that,

for some the new technology has prompted the recognition of the prescriptive reasoning behind such editions as no more than a function of the technological limits of the book, less desirable and less persuasive now that the computer makes other possibilities available; namely, multiple distinct textual witnesses assembled in a virtual archive or library of forms. [1]

I aimed to achieve a presentation of multiple textual witnesses in my own edition by encoding variant readings into my XML document. This made it possible to present the different states of the text without privileging one state over another. This approach questions the idea of an ideal or more representative version of the text by presenting each state as equally valid and as existing simultaneously. Although I was able to present variants within my encoding without making any claims as to which witness was more authoritative, this was only really achievable within the encoded document. For example:

<l n=”19″>The undistinguish’d Fury of the Street,</l>
<l n=”20″><app>
<rdg wit=”#Q2″>With</rdg>
<rdg wit=”#Q1″>which</rdg>
</app> Mob and Malice Mankind Greet:</l>

To present the text on the website I had to choose a copy text based on what I considered to be the most complete representation of Daniel Defoe’s intentions in A Hymn to the Pillory. I based my edition of the text on the second edition, corrected with additions. This decision was reached early in the project and it was based on the logic that this was the earliest edition available that presented a fuller version of the text. Given the common editorial practice of selecting either the first available edition or the last edition known to have been produced by the author, I would reconsider my choice of copy text were I to start again. However, despite being an unorthodox approach to a copy text, contemporary editions of A Hymn to the Pillory based on the first edition include the later additions found in the second edition, and given that variants between the two texts have been included, I don’t think that my earlier decision undermines the authority of the text presented in a significantly damaging way.

This concern might seem to conflict with my encoding of variants. There I have deliberately not identified a lemma and chosen instead to present multiple, simultaneous witnesses that destabilise the assumption that there are readings that are more valid. This approach works well if you are concerned with textual criticism or data mining to create distant readings of texts. However, I wanted my edition to be as useful as possible to the widest possible audience, so the traditional concern of the humanities with close readings and interpretation had to be considered, and which depend on a stable text to interpret. Marilyn Deegan and Kathryn Sutherland acknowledge this, pointing out that ‘the editor’s exercise of proper expertise may be more liberating for more readers than seemingly total freedom of choice.’[2] Although digital technologies are highlighting how text can be treated differently in electronic formats, the primary concern for most readers of literature is still in interpreting the meaning of the text (rather than how it was composed or its variant states); and to interpret the meaning rather than the textual history, a stable edition needs to be presented.

I wanted to support the authority of my edition as a serious scholarly work so I included all of the textual apparatus that you would expect to find in a scholarly print edition. C. M. Sperberg-McQueen argues that ‘electronic editions without apparatus, without documentation of editorial principles, and without decent provisions for suitable display are unacceptable for serious scholarly work.’[3] While this doesn’t necessarily mean that apparatus for digital editions has to work in the same way or with the same concerns as print editions, it situates intellectual integrity as remaining a key concern for supporting the authority of an online edition.

I used hyperlinks as a way to discretely point to textual annotations from A Hymn to the Pillory and also in order to direct readers to further online points of interest, either from the annotations themselves, or from further reading. Phillip Doss argues that ‘by allowing escape from the context of a single documentary sequence, hypertext allows a reader to escape the linearity imposed by print media.’[4] There are positive and negative implications to the use of hypertext links that I tried to consider within my edition. An obvious limitation of using hypertext is exactly that it allows readers to escape the linearity of the text. On the other hand, by using hyperlinks I have been able to provide easy access to extra-textual material that would not be possible to include in a print edition. For instance, where I have been able to find them, I have included works by people that are mentioned in A Hymn to the Pillory. This has meant that intertextual relationships can be explicitly explored, rather than simply acknowledged. In this way the text is shown to be the product of many various influences in a way that is more difficult to achieve using physical means of publication and although the text is still the main focus of the edition it is presented less in isolation.

Lisa Spiro’s essay ‘“This Is Why We Fight”: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities’ argues that ‘for the Digital Humanities, information is not a commodity to be controlled but a social good to be shared and reused.’ This is very much an attitude that I adopted in my approach to this project. My website is open access, making it freely available to anyone who wants to use the information presented. However, although this project is not formally associated with Bath Spa University, as an undergraduate studying there I had the privilege of institutional access to specialist resources that I would not have been able to use to support my research otherwise. Access to services such as the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) allowed me to work using facsimiles of the copy text and research biographical annotation with confidence in the reliability and authority of my sources. I chose to hyperlink these sites where I have relied on them for my research to maintain the integrity of my sources. Although this means that some users may not be able to access the sites at the end of the hyperlinks I believe that being able to present information based on what these resources provide goes a small way to democratising the information that they contain. Working with the knowledge that not all users will be able to reference my sources, I tried to make my annotations as comprehensive as possible while still maintaining a focus to how they are relevant to the text.

At its core this project has an engaged interest in making specialist information freely available in the most useful, reliable form possible. It has supported ongoing work to make other scholarly resources more reliable by using 18thConnect’s TypeWright and hopes to engage with the widest possible audience by providing not only what is traditionally expected from an authoritative edition of a text but also by incorporating the formats that digital encoding supports for more specialist pursuits and longevity.

[1] Marilyn Deegan and Kathryn Sutherland, Transferred Illusions: Digital Technology and the Forms of Print (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), p.87.

[2] Transferred Illusions, p.71.

[3] C. M. Sperberg-McQueen, ‘Textual Criticism and the Text Encoding Initiative’, The Literary Text in the Digital Age, ed. Richard J. Finneran (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1999), p.41.

[4] Phillip E. Doss, ‘Traditional Theory and Innovative Practice: The Electronic Editor as Poststructuralist Reader’, The Literary Text in the Digital Age, p.218.


Teaching with ECCO

A fantastically informed and informative post on using ECCO in eighteenth-century teaching, with a really useful set of follow-up comments.

Early Modern Online Bibliography

As posted yesterday, Gale Cengage is providing SUNY colleges with trial access to ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online) and NCCO (Nineteenth Century Collections Online) this fall. Gale Cengage is also sponsoring
essay contests for SUNY students using these tools. This is a great opportunity to test these products, to think about how best to teach with them, and to evaluate students’ responses to them. So how best to introduce these resources?

Thinking about my undergraduate Gothic Novel class this fall, I decided that short videos would be the most effective way to introduce students unfamiliar with eighteenth-century texts to ECCO. I prepared three brief videos (below). I would love to hear how others introduce students to these tools.

There are a number of other videos on using ECCO. Below are a few from Virginia Tech:

View original post 204 more words

CMS and VLEs vs … something else

Increasingly, I’ve become frustrated by the VLEs I’ve seen in the various institutions I’ve taught in (‘Virtual Learning Environment’: what in the US is more likely to be called CMS). Regardless of the provider, the VLE belies what its utopian name implies. I remember in the late 1990s doing a workshop at Leeds University on what I later realised was a VLE. I remember the language very clearly: that we would create virtual ‘spaces’ that students would ‘enter’ to work ‘in’. Looking at what is now standard across many HE institutions, it is far from a virtual environment that is truly interactive; the US acronym is much closer to what the software feels like – a ‘Course Management System’. It’s also closer to what students perceive it as. It might well be the digital face of a tutor’s module, but it still feels very much like the institutional face of that teaching; and it feels that way to students and tutors alike. Having an interface that tries to combine ‘hard’ features (institutional information, assessment portals – including plagiarism detection software – grading systems) with the other ‘soft’ features (such as resources and links attuned to the ethos of the tutor and their specific module) creates an odd and unappealing amalgam that does not best enable – from the student – a productive engagement with the module. I have seen wonderful things provided on the VLE pages of some my colleagues’ modules: but even at its best, it can still tend to be a rather one-sided digital conversation.

If we want to create a parallel learning space (and I use the spatial metaphor advisedly) to the space of the lecture or seminar or tutorial – and I think we should – then I’ve come to conclusion that we should move away from, or provide something else other than, the VLE / CMS. I’m perfectly aware that the major providers have been adding a huge variety of platforms to mirror the direction of web 2.0, but mine and my colleagues’ attempts to use the in-built blogs or the wiki packs have not been successful. This is partly to do with the clunkiness of the interface: it’s not intuitive, so students get caught up in the mechanics at the expense of the purpose of the exercise. But it’s also to do with the institutional effect of the VLE. I recently asked my class on eighteenth-century fiction about what kind of digital / online forum they would prefer if they wanted a ‘space’ parallel to the seminar and they overwhelmingly voted for something outside the VLE (they actually voted for Facebook because it was something most were familiar with). Recently, Carrie Shanafelt posted an adroit series of observations on using wikis in the classroom and, in particular, the negative effects of compulsion which I think my own observation on the institutional effect of the VLE / CMS parallels.

My thoughts have been also catalysed by an ongoing experiment to develop (with the help of Gavin Wilshen – thanks!) a blog-site for an MA programme. The potential opportunities for a properly interactive interface between students and tutor are underlined by the ability for tutors and students to post a continuous series of news and commentary and links to create an ongoing conversation around the topics of the course that is parallel to – and to an important extent – outside the space of the institutional face of the VLE.

I certainly thinking that some form of free blogging software is the way forward. So, right now I’m considering what particular platform might best enable a more intuitive way for my undergraduate students to interact with the materials and the topics of my modules in an online space outside or parallel to the classroom, but perhaps also outside the VLE. TBC …

Best Practices in Digital Pedagogy ASECS panel 2012

“This is the future. Oops – that’s now!” Lisa Maruca’s phrase that emphasised the immediacy – necessity, even – of our students’ engagement with digital technology made the point well. The panelists – Tonya-Marie Howe (Marymount), Kate Parker (Bucknell), David Slade (Berry) and Lisa Maruca (Wayne State) – presented their experiences of using digital technology in their teaching. Actually ‘teaching’ is perhaps the wrong word, since the key-note of the panel was ‘research’ – digital technology in the service of student-led research, either as individuals or collaboratively.

Tonya-Marie Howe, in ‘Student-created web archives and the practice of public scholarship’, detailed her experiences using Omeka. As an open-source software designed with archives in mind, Tonya argued that it was particularly useful to enable students to create collaborative (and, indeed, impressive-looking) digital archives, focused on the digitisation of around 200 pages of an eighteenth-century text. The course involved collaboration with other faculty members and support for digitisation and an essay (to be incorporated into the final archive) that reflected on the processes and creation of the archives. Kate Parker, in ‘Reconstructing literary ephemera in the classroom’, asked what it would be like to teach a course formed solely around digital texts and detailed her experiences of leading a module on eighteenth-century ephemera, what she termed the “literary dregs” of eighteenth-century literary history. Ephemera, Kate argued, posed especially productive challenges and questions regarding literary value. Getting students to engage with digital resources such as ECCO, EBBO and English Broadside Ballads was the first step in a collaborative production of an online anthology of ephemera. David Slade’s paper on ‘Teaching and building the digital archive in eighteenth-century Spanish-American studies’, examined his students’ engagement with the varied – and it seemed, neglected – digital archives of Spanish-American history including those from Columbia, Guatemala, Spain and Mexico. His aim as for students to create their own critical editions, thesis-driven archives, lists and compilations. Lisa Maruca, in ‘Re-thinking Web 1.0, or, low-skillz digital humanities for Newbies’, directly addressed the myth of the so-called ‘digital native’ by encouraging students to use easy to manipulate software such as Weebly to create their projects. Students were required to write a rationale for their resource and all projects were peer reviewed  – arguably very appropriate for the openess at the heart of online resources.

Significantly, all the papers underlined that the engagement with, and creation of, digital resources means that students are, as David Slade pointed out, “participants in the production of knowledge”. But all the panelists also agreed that one of the most important aspects of such courses was that they, as Tonya Howe said, make the processes of the production of knowledge visible. This, I think, was the most impressive potential in these courses. Even in the traditional written dissertation, for example, we hope that students are self-conscious about the decisions they make; yet the creation of original archives of various sorts involves a much more conscious set of decisions in which students become, in effect, curators, editors and scholars.

ECCO in teaching 2012

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.

Using ECCO in teaching

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.

Improving ECCO part 2

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.

Interesting times.