Engaging Students in The Digital Eighteenth Century

In fall 2014, Dermot Ryan—an associate professor in the Department of English at Loyola Marymount University—and Melanie Hubbard—the university’s digital scholarship librarian—designed and taught The Digital Eighteenth Century, a class which culminated in the creation of a digital space that showcases the digital projects students completed over the course of the semester.  You can find a video introduction to our class and the various student digital projects at [email protected].

Our concept for the class was simple:  students would better grasp the literature and culture of the eighteenth century by drawing connections between the eighteenth-century print revolution and aspects of the current digital communications revolution.  The incorporation of digital tools and assignments was intended to illustrate and provide hands-on experience with this technological shift as well as give students a new way into the study and presentation of eighteenth-century cultural materials.

The assignments were fairly basic.  Students used the Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) database not simply to locate specific texts but rather to answer basic research questions.  How many titles containing the adjective “lyrical” appear before the 1798 publication of Lyrical Ballads?  Can we trace any other literature on children chimney sweepers before William Blake’s poem on the subject?  Can we locate sources for the figure of the hermit in Charlotte Smith’s poem Beachy Head?  Students used TimeMapper to track the development of eighteenth-century literary or cultural events across space as well as time (see example).  Poetry Genius, an online annotation tool, was used to become more familiar with eighteenth-century poetry (see example).  Students brought eighteenth-century visual and literary culture together by creating digital essays in Tumblr (see example).  Because their work would be public, students were required to keep their audience in mind and ask themselves the following types of questions:  What helps me understand the literature and cultural artifacts that we are studying in this class?  How do I present these materials in a manner that a broader audience would find accessible and compelling?

The students’ projects are now part of [email protected], a site that Melanie created to be a hub for LMU’s current and future DH projects.  In a sense, The Digital Eighteenth Century was our practical response to a series of interrelated challenges that many of our colleagues face:  How do you foster digital humanities at a university that is largely focused on undergraduate education and has many of the trademarks of a liberal arts college?  How do you get from zero with little or no resources and a minimum of institutional support?  How do you do that when you yourself have had little or no institutional exposure to professional training in the tools, practices, and methods of DH?

We discussed our experience of designing and teaching this course at the 2014 Digital Scholarship Colloquium organized by the Freedman Center for Digital Scholarship at Case Western Reserve University’s Kelvin Smith Library.  Our presentation entitled “The Promise of Digital (Undergraduate) Research:  A Perspective from a Liberal Arts College” is available for viewing.  In this presentation we explain that our discussions about DH began with our desire to engage more humanities students in undergraduate research (UR).  We speculated that DH could help us overcome some of the difficulties with sustaining UR culture in the humanities.  Such difficulties include:

  • Research in the humanities tends to be non-collaborative.
  • UR in the humanities has traditionally involved student-led initiatives with students working on topics related only tangentially to a faculty member’s own research.
  • Research in the humanities cannot be easily “segmented” into manageable units for undergraduate researchers.
  • There is a high threshold to entry into humanities research.
  • There is no incentive:  in universities that do not have large Ph.D. or postdoctoral programs, the sciences “need” undergraduates to conduct research; conversely, UR potentially distracts humanist scholars from their research.

Ways in which we feel DH can potentially address these challenges include:

  • DH can challenge the canard that research in the humanities is inherently non-collaborative.
  • Research projects in DH can be parsed into manageable units.
  • DH can allow us to generate online research projects that allow for ongoing student/faculty collaboration while contributing to faculty scholarship, rather than diverting attention from faculty research.

The eighteenth century is a particularly rich time period for these kinds of faculty and student collaborations not only because eighteenth-century print culture with its focus on social networking and media storms bears some striking resemblances to our particular moment but also because there are a number of rich online eighteenth-century resources, like ECCO, on which our students can draw.

Sheffield: Print, Protest and Poetry, 1790-1810

SheffieldSheffield:  Print, Protest and Poetry, 1790-1810 is an ever-growing digital anthology of protest poetry printed in Sheffield’s radical press at the end of the eighteenth century.

Directed by Dr. Hamish Mathison and researched by Dr. Adam James Smith, the anthology was born of an AHRC-funded cultural engagement project focusing on the full collections of The Sheffield Register (1787-1794) and The Sheffield Iris (1794-1825), newspapers held in University Library Special Collections.  The Register was edited by Joseph Gales, the Iris by Sheffield’s legendary poet and prolific champion of cause, James Montgomery.

Writing under the close scrutiny of suspicious local authorities both the Register and the Iris presented their most controversial material in a section referred to affectionately by readers as “Poetry Corner.”  This section saw the publication of a different poem each week (either written by a Sheffield resident or aggregated from elsewhere) but usually addressed to one of a series of recurrent themes:  religious integration, racial equality, worker’s rights, universal access to education, and political enfranchisement for all.

An overarching concern was that if the government could not legally be criticized, then there remained no safe-guard against tyranny.  As one reader’s poem warned in April 1793, this seemed to be increasingly the case:

We may speak (it is true) if we mind what we say;

But to speak all we think, will not suit in our day.

These lines proved prophetic, with the Register coming to an abrupt close a few months later.  Charged with “conspiracy against the government,” Gales was forced to abandon the paper to start a new life in America as a fugitive.

The Sheffield: Print, Protest Poetry, 1790-1810 project has been releasing a different poem every week, and online readers have been surprised and excited by how prescient they have proved.  One poem titled “On the Effects of Gold” warned that political reform was never likely whilst politicians were more interested in lining their own pockets.  This poem was made live on the Sheffield: Print, Protest Poetry, 1790-1810 website the day before the Panama Papers story broke.

The first installment of the anthology focuses on poems printed between 1794 and 1796, marking the transition from the Register to the Iris.  This transition was brought about when the editor of the Register was charged with conspiracy against the government and forced to flee to America.  There will also be a printed anthology titled Poetry, Conspiracy, Radical in Sheffield (Spirit Duplicator, 2016), and new recordings of some of these poems have already been released on Soundcloud.  We also have a Podcast, which seeks to situate these poems in broader national contexts.  You can follow Sheffield: Print, Protest and Poetry, 1790-1810 on Facebook and Twitter.

James Gillray: Caricaturist

James Gillray (1756-1815) was one of the greatest caricaturists of the 18th century.  From around 1775 until 1810, he produced nearly 1,000 prints—including brilliantly finished portrait caricatures of the rich, famous, or frivolous, wonderfully comic caricatures of people being awkward, and unquestionably the best satiric caricatures of British political and social life in the age of Napoleon.  His preeminence in graphic satire, especially in the 1790s made him both sought after and feared.  No sooner did a new Gillray print appear than it was sure to be plagiarized or imitated by contemporaries both in England and abroad.  And even today, there are few political cartoonists who would not admit to some debt to Gillray’s work.  For those interested in the development of English caricature and especially the prints of James Gillray, I have created a web site you can visit for a comprehensive overview of his work–James Gillray:  Caricaturist.

The site includes, first and foremost, a chronological listing of his known prints–both satiric and otherwise.  But it also contains a list of major museums and archives where his work can be seen, information about Gillray’s life, working methods, and techniques, and links to short biographical sketches of many of the people he caricatured.

Here is the background.  A couple of years ago, I decided to return to a book I had long since planned to write on the development of 18th-century caricature.  But, of course, anyone hoping to talk about caricature must confront the monumental presence of James Gillray.  So I began to look carefully at Gillray and his own development as a caricaturist.

I was soon frustrated, however, by the lack of a comprehensive and chronological catalog of his work.  Most of the books devoted to Gillray offer only a selection of his work, or, like Thomas Wright and Dorothy George, divide his work into political or satirical prints and social, personal, and miscellaneous prints.  And none of them include the prints Gillray created in his bid to be recognized as a “serious” artist and engraver.  I wanted to see Gillray’s work as he saw it, as a day by day effort at making a living and honing his craft.

Using the British Museum Catalog as a point of reference, I began doing searches of major Gillray archives online and visiting some of the non-digitized collections near my home in central New Jersey.  I will spare you the tales of my additional frustration while searching online for prints whose spelling and punctuation are highly idiosyncratic, and whose dates are sometimes difficult to decipher even up close.  Needless to say, I discovered that search results are only as good (or bad) as the very human process of cataloging the prints in the first place.  And I came away with a deep respect and appreciation for the heroic efforts of the staffs at the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Lewis Walpole Library, and other institutions who have made it immeasurably easier (though still challenging) for someone like me to come along and build upon their work.

The first result of my efforts, then, was a spreadsheet of over 900 rows containing a chronological listing of the prints and at least some of the collections where they could be found.  After months of labor, I realized I had only arrived at a starting point.  I could now begin to look at and think about Gillray’s development as an artist.  And that’s when I thought:  no one should have to go through this again.  And that’s when I also realized that I should make a website so that people could easily see what I was seeing–the wonderful artistry of James Gillray.

It was a natural enough thought for me.  I spent most of my life outside of academics at a major technology company, AT&T Labs (the successor of Bell Labs).  And the last part of my career there was managing a website design and development group.  Thinking in terms of web publishing, then, was almost second nature to me.  So I began to design a website around the idea:  what would I want to see and know if I were trying to get acquainted with Gillray and his work?  And that is still the guiding principle of James Gillray:  Caricaturist.  I launched the site on the 200th anniversary of Gillray’s death on June 1st, 2015, and its basic design has not changed.  But right now I have a goal of providing commentaries on at least a representative sample of the 900+ prints Gillray created over the course of his career.  About 50 are now up on the site, and I am continuing to add more.

If you wish to be alerted when I add more commentaries or make a substantive change to the site, I have included a form to subscribe to updates on my contact page.  I welcome feedback, corrections, and suggestions, and I have provided my email address on the same page.

Circulating Enlightenment: The Andrew Millar Project

MillarProject

Circulating Enlightenment: http://www.millar-project.ed.ac.uk/

Recipient of the 2016 Digital Prize from the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Circulating Enlightenment introduces users to historical sources that document literary culture in eighteenth-century Edinburgh and London, along with e-learning modules for teaching.  A growing suite of otherwise unpublished primary documents, largely correspondence between authors and their London bookseller, Andrew Millar (1705-68), can be downloaded and used for teaching and research—as scans of the original manuscripts, as direct transcription, and as edited materials. These are suitable for teaching at secondary and post-secondary levels, and for scholarly research.  These have been marked up using TEI, which allows users to create their own editions of these materials, which we have sourced from a growing list of repositories in the US and the UK.

Circulating Enlightenment is an extension of an AHRC-funded research project, which collects, edits, and will publish (with Oxford University Press), the correspondence and business ledgers of Andrew Millar, one of the most important publishers of the eighteenth century.  Born in Glasgow, apprenticed in Edinburgh, and in business in London between 1726 and 1768, Millar enabled the publication and circulation of major and minor works of the Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment.  His financial and legal dealings facilitated the movement of books between two great urban centres, Edinburgh and London, and his name is on the title-page of the first editions of the most influential works:  from novels to poems, to plays, to theology, to philosophy, to medicine, to science.  His legacy continues to shape the cultural, economic, social, and intellectual history of this period.