Introduction

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This collection came together as the result of the annual Romantic Circles-NASSR (North American Society for the Study of Romanticism) Pedagogy Prize. Lindsey Eckert and Lissette Lopez Szwydky, co-winners of the 2014 prize, separately submitted projects that included technology as central components of their courses. Together, the six essays in this volume speak to the value of collaboration, interdisciplinary teaching, and public humanities. Underscoring all of the contributions is a belief that Romantic literature is uniquely suited to innovate pedagogical approaches that embrace new technologies because the historical period itself was characterized by questions about technology, its consequences, and its possibilities. As scholars and educators of Romanticism, we see strong parallels between the period that we teach and the age in which we live. Using multimedia projects, the essays in this collection approach themes central to Romanticism—nature, rights, collaboration, reading, the public sphere—through the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the nineteenth century and the digital revolution at the turn of the twenty-first century. This volume provides practical overviews of technical and digital alternative assignments that can be incorporated into Romantic-period courses, including critical reflection about the value of digital projects in the humanities.

Romanticism and Technology: Introduction

1.        Technology preoccupies us as scholars and, in particular, as teachers. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog ProfHacker often features material dedicated to digital pedagogy. The open-access journal Hybrid Pedagogy provides important practical and theoretical articles that help educators meet the new possibilities and challenges of digital and online pedagogy. Most recently, the forthcoming collection Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments promises to be an important text that helps us think practically and theoretically about how digital technologies are changing what and how we teach in the humanities classroom. (The editors of Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities have made keyword entries available for open review on MLA Commons.) These examples are just the tip of the iceberg.

2.        A reader might rightly wonder what a special issue on “Romanticism and Technology” might add to this growing body of material. Indeed, this special issue of Romantic Circles Pedagogy Commons is not, like other previous issues, organized by genre or author. Yet underscoring all of the contributions here is a belief that Romantic literature is uniquely suited to innovate pedagogical approaches that embrace new technologies because the historical period itself was characterized by questions about technology and its consequences. Herein lies the strength of the collection. Despite the broad range of approaches and interpretations contained in these essays, there exists an uncanny cohesion. As scholars and educators of Romanticism, we see strong parallels between the period that we teach and the age in which we live. Through new lines of interdisciplinary and multimedia inquiry, the essays in this collection ask us to reimagine themes central to Romanticism—nature, rights, collaboration, reading, the public sphere—through the industrial Revolution at the turn of the nineteenth century and the digital revolution at the turn of the twenty-first century.

3.        The link between the Romantic period and today spurs our own individual pedagogy, and it was for that reason that after the 2014 NASSR/Romantic Circles Pedagogy Contest we were asked to co-edit a special issue on this topic. Lissette Lopez Szwydky’s submission for the contest, “Mary Shelley in Context(s): Wikis and Blogs in Romanticism Courses,” uses open-access digital platforms to reimagine the spirit of collaboration that characterizes the texts and careers of many Romantic-period writers. Through a publicly accessible wiki, her students participate in modes of conversation and scholarship that are themselves more analogous to Romantic modes of thought than pedagogical products like the traditional five-page essay. Moreover, by creating an open-access resource that can be used by multiple courses over a series of years, students’ work also points toward the Godwin-Shelley circle’s emphasis on collaboration, revision, and public education. Lindsey Eckert’s entry, based on the graduate course “Romanticism and Technologies of Information,” emphasizes how debates about access to and the circulation of information represented in Romantic literature, particularly by members of the Godwin-Shelley circle, anticipate current debates about the circulation of (digital) information. In addition to reading Romantic literature, students in the course explore new approaches to literary studies—TEI encoding, data mining, and platforms for making digital editions—that reflect the changing face of scholarship in our own information age. While students can produce research essays, they are also invited to produce collaborative projects.

4.        Beyond ideas of community so crucial to our own pedagogy, collaboration also grounds the pairing of “Romanticism” and “technology” throughout the essays in this collection. Although a major thread of Romanticism championed individualism and ideas of the solitary genius, the lived experience of many of the period’s authors and readers complicate these notions. Writers at the center of Romanticism formed elaborate social networks whose reach and relationship to technological innovations remain impressive today. They exchanged manuscripts and edited each other’s work. They corresponded regularly, taking advantage of Britain’s growing mail system. They loaned books from circulating libraries and discussed the latest periodicals in coffee shops. They published collaboratively and competed for visibility. They employed emerging technologies to print their works: steam presses, increased use of stereotype plates, and mechanized paper production. They reconsidered the importance of education not only for the individual but also for the masses.

5.        Similarly, this collection of essays emphasizes the possibilities opened by collaboration and technology despite how much our profession continues to value individual research, authorship, and teaching that privileges the essay genre. Several of the contributions in this issue are collaboratively written, often as the result of co-taught courses. The individually authored essays, too, show the importance of collaborative discourse (in the classroom and among different areas of specialization) and cooperative assignments (through peer review or public sharing).

6.        In many ways, the technological and collaborative dimensions of the assignments discussed in this collection mirror the material practices of Romantic-era writing and publishing. Literary production (both then and now) relies on period-specific technology to reimagine the audiences and aims of literature. Romantic literary culture anticipates the frenetic and disjointed spirit of internet publishing, social media, and educational practices. Not only was “authority” a questionable category politically, but it was also one complicated by historical authorship and editorial practices. As William St Clair reminds us, “anonymity seems to have been normal, particularly for first books,” and anonymous and pseudonymous publication was also used to escape the authority of libel laws, with Byron’s Don Juan being the most famous example (173). The slipperiness of authorship—exemplified by the publication history of John William Polidori’s “The Vampyre: A Tale,” originally attributed to Byron—complicated the authority one had over one’s name, copyright, and literary style. Moreover, Romantic writers revised frequently, and many of the period’s most famous works exist in multiple versions or editions (i.e., William Blake’s illuminated books, Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets, Wordsworth’s The Prelude, and Byron’s The Giaour). Fragmentary and unstable texts unsettled conceptions of literary coherence and authority. These issues, prevalent in the Romantic literary marketplace, are further complicated today by modern “authoritative editions” that attempt to untangle them.

7.        Such shifts in the literary marketplace concerned contemporaries. Scholarship reevaluating the Romantic public sphere, such as Paul Keen’s The Crisis of Literature in the 1790s: Print Culture and the Public Sphere and Andrew Franta’s Romanticism and the Rise of the Mass Public, has shown that the conditions of writing, publishing, and reading in the period were overshadowed by uneasy feelings about the unknowable, uncontrollable aspects of a rapidly expanding and largely anonymous public. Indeed, much of what is deemed suspicious about online publishing today (textual instability, anonymity, lack of authority) reflects similar criticisms that coincided with the rise of the novel, the explosion of radical periodicals, the anonymous mass of writers who produced them, and readers who consumed them.

8.        In this light, the essays collected here maintain technology’s centrality to Romanticism and its continued legacy in the present. The themes and projects discussed in this volume were not developed with the aim of imposing anachronistic models of technological engagement for the sake of engaging students in the study of literary history on their own terms. We maintain that the pedagogical and scholarly possibilities afforded by today’s technology are a natural progression of Romanticism’s emergence in the age of revolutions: technological and political, literary and social. The essays here present an implicit argument that Romantic technology and mediation are key precursors to our own contemporary multimedia-driven culture. Thus, they support previous claims that “the modern technological age” actually “began with the industrial revolution and romanticism” and that “Romantic poetry is both strikingly illuminated by, and capable of illuminating, our multi-mediated situation” (Ong 1; Langan and McLane 239). We see parallels here of Clifford Siskin and William Warner’s edited collection This is Enlightenment, which resituates what is sometimes understood as a singular moment in modern history as “an event in the history of mediation” characterized by the rise of distinct models for organizing information, tools and techniques for disseminating knowledge, and practices for operating under new philosophical, economic, and political systems (1). If, as Siskin and Warner’s volume suggests, eighteenth-century writers were the Enlightenment’s architects, then the Romantics (and their twenty-first-century successors) were its practitioners, introducing new models of critique and technique as the proliferation of new media turned to saturation.

9.        Like Sisken and Warner, we see clear parallels between the technological revolutions of the turn of the nineteenth century and “the tale now being retold by the early twenty-first-century advent of electronic and digital media. . . . [E]veryone has the sense that there is nowhere to hide from [technology’s] mediating powers; in fact, the desire to hide is itself an index to saturation and confirmation of difference becoming a new norm” (19). As educators, we recognize that the saturation of new media in our students’ lives both in and outside of the classroom requires new modes of engagement as we teach students to consume, critique, and produce knowledge. We also hear echoes of excitement and mistrust among our colleagues and students that resonate with the critical questions that Romantic literature poses. The period’s thinkers and artists employed the newest technologies to communicate with growing audiences and expanding publics while remaining skeptical of its increasing presence in daily life. This, too, is a value that students today can take from the Romantics and the scholars who serve as mediators between the past and the present; as technology becomes ubiquitous, there is a need for understanding both its uses and its limitations. Since many Romantic texts themselves thematize technology’s limits and possibilities as well as the changing nature of the public sphere, Romanticism is especially well-situated to help students become critical users of technology. One way to do this is to teach practices that ask students to use the technologies available to them as a way of rethinking how they too can become historical mediators for a range of audiences with varying levels of exposure to the content covered in the classroom.

10.        Questions of access also offer a common thread amongst in the present collection much like they informed Mary Wollstonecraft’s call for a national system of education, the democratic language of “the new poetry” spearheaded by William Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s excitement for the public’s increasing access to print. All of the digital projects described in this issue draw on open-access resources and platforms. Romantic-era literature, history, and technology are imagined for a broad cross-section of students at different points in their academic careers. Our decision to highlight access in our original call for papers reflects the material conditions and restrictions of teaching today as budget cuts dominate higher education and the value of the humanities is increasingly questioned. The innovative assignments with public-engagement components outlined in several of these essays demonstrate how we might use pedagogy to convey the relevance of humanistic inquiry beyond the academy. By adding to Wikipedia or creating original open-access editions, students of Romanticism add to a body of knowledge that crosses the boundaries between town and gown. A related goal of this collection is to reflect the range of institutions where Romanticism is taught, the different levels of access afforded to each, and the distinctive needs of students. These essays represent teaching and research environments from across North America, from online courses at state institutions to small classes at liberal arts colleges.

11.        Despite diverse institutions, common questions arise. What might graduate students in English gain from digital projects on the Romanticism? How do undergraduate English majors who will move on to a range of careers after graduation benefit from non-traditional assignments? How is the study of Romanticism beneficial for biology and computer engineering majors as well as those in English? One significant conclusion presented by these essays is that employing innovative technologies and assignments build the same skills that we have traditionally valued in our discipline: close reading, analytical thinking, and rigorous (well-cited) research. Moreover, these essays suggest that as Romanticists we are uniquely positioned to “encourage the transfer of print reading abilities to digital and vice versa” that, according to Katherine Hayles, is absent in many literary courses (63). Together these essays offer practical plans and course materials that will help readers confidently adopt them for their own classroom. Beyond modeling innovative classroom practices, the authors of these essays also help us reflect theoretically about how teaching Romantic literature alongside (historical) questions of technology, ethics, and humanity can help prepare students for future academic work as well as for being more reflective people generally. All of the digital assignments covered here require students to consider the crossover from the classroom into the public sphere not as a “secondary” learning outcome but instead as a primary mode of engagement that highlights practical uses and ethical effects of humanistic study in the twenty-first century.

12.        Interdisciplinary thinking and action drive Seth Reno’s “‘Imagination under the banner of Science’: Teaching Green Romanticism with Weebly.” Reno fuses “Green Romanticism” and “Technological Romanticism” through web-based assignments where students create digital editions. These editions bring together text-based readings, authoritative sources, and multimedia elements that illustrate each poem’s text alongside its landscapes, ecological references, and visual frames of reference. Thus, Reno asks his students to model “the interdisciplinary nature of the [Romantic] poems” that they study, achieving a “place-based” literacy of the poems’ texts and environmental contexts. Undergraduate and graduate students in this split-level course use traditional skills (close reading, logical organization, and scholarly support and attribution) to create digital projects that connect the ecological concerns of Romantic texts to current ethical debates in a medium aimed at a public audience. Reno ends with a refreshingly honest reflection about the challenges that multimedia projects present, yet he also argues that, despite their challenges, these projects are particularly good at providing students with skills applicable to careers both in and outside of the academy.

13.        In “‘A Sound but half its own’: A Collaborative, Cross-Disciplinary Exploration of Poetic Sounds in Literature and Electrical Engineering Classrooms,” Andrew Burkett and Palmyra Catravas detail their innovative collaboration between the humanities and the applied sciences. They show us how modern technology can be used to better understand Romantic poetics. Separate groups of students from English and Engineering collaborate on semester-long projects that visualize sound waves created by an Aeolian harp and recite poems to “measure poetic sound with scientific instrumentation.” The engineering students write papers according to standards of scientific writing, and the literature students add historical and literary details while also gaining experience in technical writing and editing. While the individual courses each focus primarily on the terms and tools of their respective disciplines, the students simultaneously experience how cross-disciplinary work enhances each area of study.

14.        New approaches to semester-long projects and scholarly editions unfold from the perspectives of both instructor and students in “Digital Projects in the Romanticism Classroom: A Practical Guide to Student Use of WordPress,” collaboratively written by Michelle Levy and two graduate students, Ashley Morford and Lindsey Seatter. Along with the detailed rationale and pedagogical planning that Levy relates, the student perspective adds an important voice to the educational experience, arguing for the “use-value” of digital projects in literature classes. Their essay challenges us to reconsider the research essay’s prominence in literary courses, and it celebrates the range of outcomes possible when students are afforded flexibility to experiment with new formats. The piece also provides a primer for instructors who are relatively new to digital projects, and it discusses numerous examples of web resources, open-access archives, and a companion website with clear tutorials and links to several successful projects. Additionally, Morford and Seatter describe how they have used their projects as foundations for ongoing graduate work, remaking the final project for Levy’s course into the first step in a larger research agenda that advances Romanticism’s relevance to digital humanities.

15.        Andrea Rehn’s “Digital Communities, Embodied Learning, and Material Culture in Jane Austen” invites readers to consider the parallels between social identity in the Regency period and the digital age. The social networks described in Austen’s works come into relief through assignments that emphasize embodied practices including reading, dancing, and socializing. Students use online tools such as Tumblr and YouTube to capture, create, and distribute cultural artifacts and customs from the Romantic period. For Rehn and her students, technology enables a multisensory understanding of the relevant historical context. Whether collecting recipes for bread pudding, creating video guides, or throwing a Regency-themed ball, students demonstrate a nuanced understanding of the social codes that guided Austen’s characters. At the same time they are asked to consider questions of subjectivity and performance as they develop their own online identities, and Rehn shows how contemporary social media theories of “context collapse” and “participatory culture” provide students with a framework for exploring the social mores of Regency country gentry.

16.        In a different take on the more ephemeral aspects of Romantic culture so distant to many students, “Digital Experiments in Romantic-era Commonplace Books” contrasts the ways that audiences in different historical periods manage “information overload.” Working with Harvard University Library’s Open Collections Program’s open-access digital manuscripts, Shelley AJ Jones stresses the connections between eighteenth-century periodicals, nineteenth-century commonplace books, and contemporary technology. Padlet provides a digital platform where students create their own virtual commonplace books. Students use John Locke’s indexing system to “synthesize the wealth of material . . . gathered over the course of the semester into manageable pieces that suggest larger questions of categorizing the Romantic period.” Students curate and preserve the most relevant information according to a combination of personal interests as well as historical models of knowledge organization in a digital environment. Students work individually and collaboratively on projects that teach them as much about information management in the Romantic period as in the digital age. Readers interested in data management will find useful parallels with Ann Blair and Peter Stallybrass’s “Mediating Information, 1450-1800,” a concise survey of techniques and technologies of storing and retrieving information from the medieval period through the Enlightenment.

17.        Concluding the volume, Mark Crosby and Alex Stinson ask how collaborative writing models and existing public knowledge repositories can be harnessed in the Romantic literature classroom. “William Blake, Wikipedia, and a Public Pedagogy” tackles the challenges of creating credible information for one of the most popular sites on the internet. For Crosby and Stinson, Blake and Wikipedia are a natural pairing. Both are media phenomena built on democratic ethos. More importantly, they identify an opportunity for student work to shape public discourse. Especially helpful in this essay is the discussion of Wikipedia’s established standards for quality assessment. While many scholars question the credibility of the site (especially with regard to students’ overreliance on Wikipedia as a source), Crosby and Stinson show us that Wikipedia’s standards are actually quite stringent—perhaps even more so than the standards to which undergraduate literary students are often held. Their discussion reveals how we might better align pedagogical expectations for evaluation, scholarly standards for publication, and the public need for quality information. Students are thus situated in a unique and empowered position to supply this need and increase the visibility of the humanities in the public sphere.

18.        At their core, all of the essays here gesture toward the need to extend the discourses of the humanities in general, and Romanticism in particular, beyond classroom and disciplinary boundaries. Technology offers an effective toolkit to accomplish these goals. One of our biggest challenges as Romanticists lies in demonstrating to our students the parallels between past and present as well as the value of humanities versus straightforward professional training. Technology provides a bridge between concepts that may seem distinctive or perhaps even incompatible to our students through practices that reflect their material and virtual realities.

19.        Beyond pedagogy, the work presented in this collection has larger implications for research, scholarship, and disciplinary innovation. Explicit connections between technology and literature are critical to contemporary literary studies. Much in the same way that Romanticists were central to the development of literary theories shaping the pedagogical frameworks that underscore our own training, digital humanities and pedagogy fosters not only interdisciplinary work, but also intra-disciplinary discussion. What do we share in common with colleagues who specialize in historical periods or theoretical approaches different from our own? How can asking our own students to reimagine their scholarly research and practice encourage us to do the same? How can we find opportunities to connect the work in our individual courses to the broader implications of literary study in the twenty-first century? The essays collected here provide models for technology’s ability to reimagine Romanticism as the springboard for critical pedagogy and public humanities.

Works Cited

Blair, Ann and Peter Stallybrass, “Mediating Information, 1450-1800.” This is Enlightenment, edited by Clifford Siskin and William Warner, U of Chicago P, 2010, pp. 139-63.

Franta, Andrew. Romanticism and the Rise of the Mass Public. Cambridge UP, 2007.

Garside, Peter, James Raven, and Rainer Schöwerling. The English Novel 1770-1829: A Bibliographical Survey of Prose Fiction Published in the British Isles. 2 vols. Oxford UP, 2000.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine.” ADE Bulletin vol. 150,2010, pp. 62-79.

Keen, Paul. The Crisis of Literature in the 1790s: Print Culture and the Public Sphere, Cambridge UP, 1999.

Langan, Celeste and Maureen McLane. “The Medium of Romantic Poetry.” The Cambridge Companion to British Romantic Poetry, edited by James Chandler and Maureen McLane, Cambridge UP, 2008, pp. 239–68.

Ong, Walter J. Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture. Cornell UP, 1971.

Siskin, Clifford and William Warner, eds. This is Enlightenment. U of Chicago P, 2010.

Notes

[1] For a more comprehensive view of anonymous publication in the Romantic period see Peter Garside, James Raven, and Rainer Schöwerling’s bibliography of English novels. BACK