Beginnings

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As I adjust to my new position as Interim Director of Undergraduate Studies, I’ll also be teaching two courses this semester: one new, the other familiar.  In the latter, I’ll be of the team responsible for the online section of English 203: Introduction of World Literature, a course enrolled by more 500 students.  The new course, meanwhile, is a graduate seminar on Book History, a course I’ve been looking forward to for the past year.  I’ve copied the course description below, but check out the course website for a more detailed list of readings, resources, and assignments.

ENG 644: Methods in Book History

Course Description
This course provides a broad survey and introduction to theoretical issues in the history of the book. As our culture transitions from print to digital media, interest in the book as a material artifact has exploded, leading to a dynamic field of study that now encompasses both traditional disciplines like bibliography, antiquarianism, philology, and textual scholarship, as well as more recent theories in communication studies, material culture, and media theory.

This course will survey a few significant trends in book history through theoretical readings, historical scholarship, and literary case studies, with specific attention placed on reverse engineering the book as technology of writing—a material artifact for storing, processing, and transmitting the elementary bits of culture (the sounds, letters, and other notations that constitute texts, narrative, information, and history). Topics to investigate will include: the history of alphabetic writing; the invention of moveable type; the history of literacy and alphabetization, specifically as it registers in children’s literature; the circulation of information and other media in the Enlightenment; the industrialization of book production in the nineteenth century; the rise of authorship, copyright, and other publishing institutions; the evolution of design, format, and other diagrammatic interfaces of the book; the role of readers in the production of community; and the influence of digital technologies in reshaping the basic elements of literacy and publishing.

Critical and historical essays will include foundational work by Michael Foucault, Walter Ong, Roger Chartier, Jerome McGann, D.F. McKenzie, Elizabeth Eisenstein, and Peter Stallybrass, as well as selected readings in literary and media theory by Friedrich Kittler, Lisa Gitelman, Meredith McGill, Andrew Piper, Matthew Kirschenbaum, and N. Katherine Hayles. Literary case studies will include Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and Mark Twain’s No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, in addition to a few poems and short stories. Course requirements include active participation in discussions and writing assignments, a reading journal, an oral presentation, a short history of an archival object, and a final paper based on materials from the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection.

Required Texts:

  • David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery, ed. The Book History Reader. Second Edition: 978-0415359481 (Amazon); First Edition: 978-0415226585 (Amazon)
  • Michelle Levy and Tom Mole, ed., The Broadview Reader in Book History, 9781554810888 (Amazon)
  • Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, 978-0393935615 (Amazon)
  • Mark Twain, No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, 978-0520270008 (Amazon)
  • All other required readings listed on the course schedule (available through Dropbox folder).

Broken Tablets

Gilgamesh has always been one of my favorite texts to teach.  Few works of literature embody their themes so intimately and materially.  With each ellipses, gap, and discontinuity in the text, we are reminded of the central brokenness of what it means to be mortal.

Here are some of my lecture slides on the text, many of which center on questions of memory, materiality, and the origin of writing.

C19 Literature in the High School Classroom

The following are slides to a guest lecture that I delivered on teaching 19th-Century American Literature in the high school classroom.  Thanks to Dr. Kate Cochran for the invite, and to her wonderful group of students in English 402: Literature Study for Teachers.  I enjoyed talking about the intersection of American literature, digital media, and recent methodological debates in the field of literary studies.

The Dot Experiment

My ENG 400 Senior Seminar on “Literature, Media, Modernity” just finished a week talking about attention, distraction, and media. We started with McLuhan and ended with Ambrose Bierce’s “The Suitable Surroundings,” touching on William James’s dot experiment in the middle. Here’s his description of the experiment in his chapter on “Attention,” culled from his popular Talk to Teachers:

Voluntary attention is thus an essentially instantaneous affair. You can claim it, for your purposes in the schoolroom, by commanding it in loud, imperious tones; and you can easily get it in this way. But, unless the subject to which you thus recall their attention has inherent power to interest the pupils, you will have got it for only a brief moment; and their minds will soon be wandering again. To keep them where you have called them, you must make the subject too interesting for them to wander again. And for that there is one prescription; but the prescription, like all our prescriptions, is abstract, and, to get practical results from it, you must couple it with mother-wit.

The prescription is that the subject must be made to show new aspects of itself; to prompt new questions; in a word, to change. From an unchanging subject the attention inevitably wanders away. You can test this by the simplest possible case of sensorial attention. Try to attend steadfastly to a dot on the paper or on the wall. You presently find that one or the other of two things has happened: either your field of vision has become blurred, so that you now see nothing distinct at all, or else you have involuntarily ceased to look at the dot in question, and are looking at something else. But, if you ask yourself successive questions about the dot,—how big it is, how far, of what shape, what shade of color, etc.; in other words, if you turn it over, if you think of it in various ways, and along with various kinds of associates,—you can keep your mind on it for a comparatively long time. This is what the genius does, in whose hands a given topic coruscates and grows. And this is what the teacher must do for every topic if he wishes to avoid too frequent appeals to voluntary attention of the coerced sort. In all respects, reliance upon such attention as this is a wasteful method, bringing bad temper and nervous wear and tear as well as imperfect results. The teacher who can get along by keeping spontaneous interest excited must be regarded as the teacher with the greatest skill.

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