Rare Books in the Classroom

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In a couple of weeks I’m going to take a group of students from Deidre Lynch’s Romantic Poetry and Prose course to the E.J. Pratt Library to show them some rare material in the Library’s collection.  Pratt has a particularly strong Romanticism collection, including such gems as the holograph of Christabel, many of Coleridge’s notebooks, numerous Blake prints, and a diverse collection of color prints by George Baxter.  Indeed, there is so much interesting material that it is proving difficult for me to select what to show students.  Yet in considering what specific items I will show the class, a more fundamental issue has arisen.  In the end it may matter much more how I show them things rather than what I show them.

I think it is fair to say that the majority of students in the class have not worked with, handled, or even seen rare books and manuscripts, and I hope that their first experience will be an exciting and memorable one.  I realize that there is a danger of making a trip to the rare book library seem like a demonstration about neat curiosities rather than a scholarly exercise.  However, it would be silly to deny the fact that rare materials do have a certain “wow” factor.  I remember fondly my own first experience working with manuscripts while researching Lady Caroline Lamb’s correspondence.  Sitting in the Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies Office just north of London, I could not believe that the librarian gave me a box (an entire box!) of letters (her letters!) to read.  It was a good half hour before I could actually compose myself enough to do any real work.  I do not think my experience is unique, and one of the exciting things about our field is the chance to work with materials that sometimes take our breath away.

As Walter Benjamin’s work reminds us, certain objects, whether they are works of art, letters, or rare 200-year-old books, have a powerful aura.  It seems only sensible, then, to acknowledge to our students that, at a very basic level, a lot of the manuscripts, letters, and books that we study are not only of scholarly interest but are also downright cool.  Indeed, the curiosity so central to bibliophilic impulses has been the foundation of countless libraries and collections that are now valued for their scholarly import but were once privately collected.  I think that to downplay these aspects of research would be doing students a disservice.  Acknowledging the thrill of certain rare materials can be helpful in making both us as scholars and the material we study more accessible to students.

My own research is book historical in its approach and focus, so to me it seems self-evident that one may wish to consult the actual edition readers may have been reading.  Similarly, it seems obviously useful to trace a reader’s engagement with a book through his or her marginalia or to compare two different editions of the same work that were sold at different price points.  I think the key to making the library excursion interesting and valuable for my students will be to get them to infer the scholarly ways the materials I will show them could be used.  Rather than show them Coleridge’s marginal notes and tell them how and why I find them useful, it seems best to let them tell me.  A letter or a book is not a single purpose academic tool.  Like the modern edited texts of the Romantic works that we teach, there is more than one reading and more than one way of using primary resources.  Getting students interested in and engaging with rare materials through early exposure is the first step towards getting students to recognize them as valuable resources rather than simply cool old things.

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3 Comments

Lindsey, This looks like

Lindsey,

This looks like an interesting project. Even though I don't really consider myself a huge archival historian, I enjoy archival projects.

I actually taught a course on the adaptation of Romantic and Victorian literature by Twentieth Century Postcolonial authors last Spring, and we spent a good four weeks on Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. Rushdie's novel has several allusions to Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and, I argued that it critiqued several Romantic commonplaces about imagination, psychology, orientalism and colonialism. I designed an archival research poster for their final project. The students were to go to the newly opened Rushdie archive at Emory University, pick out three archival documents, and then show me what how those documents give new insights into a specific theme of the novel. I actually assigned general themes to my students, but I gave them a pretty extensive introduction to archival research and stressed that you often didn't find what you expect to find in the archive. I also emphasized that, often, archival research surprises you in a good way.

Students were, initially, very annoyed by having to go to another library (across Town, oh no!), sign up in advance for research times, fill out all of the paperwork needed to look at archival research, and wade through all of the documents looking for something relevant. We spent a good four weeks on the project and I made each student group give me frequent updates about their research. Furthermore, I would cancel every other class, so they had ample time to search for stuff in the archive.

As they started their project, it was clear that several groups did not find what they were looking for -- however, they also had difficulty (as many undergraduates do) limiting their archival projects to manageable topics. I told them that they only had a single poster with a specific thesis statement, and a few sentence-length points to make supplemented with images of their archival documents, so they needed to be extremely concise.

Ultimately, though, my students were extremely successful. We presented our student-projects at a poster session at Georgia Tech library last April. My colleagues were impressed that the students were so excited about "what they found." I think this last point was the key to my own success with the archive: students had to find their own material, I didn't show them anything - really. They also had to figure out what types of research would be applicable to their project, and realize when the research didn't support their argument. Since the students had to figure out what pieces of the archive were important, and why, and then demonstrate that relevance to other teachers in our program, they became more invested in the project.

Lindsey, this is great. Can

Lindsey, this is great. Can you report to us how it went? Perhaps some reflections on what you finally decided to do to engage students?

In my Introduction to Literary Criticism course, we get to New Historicism very late, and it's often a difficult concept to grasp unless students can "touch the stuff." So I bring in my collection of Boy's Own Annuals magazines with their original orange paper covers. It's quite exhilarating for them to see the advertisements next to the images and the text. We discuss the consumption and creation of masculinity in these magazines in terms of the sense of adventure afforded "boys." We've also begun discussing what makes a "boy" in the late Victorian period. Though this example is outside the Romantic period, it's relevant to exemplify the sheer fun that can be had in the classroom.

Mind you, though, I bring in my personal collection. I haven't brought in the more expensive materials from the Romantic period, such as the conduct manuals, newspapers and science texts. At some point, I want to create a project-centered course in which students are responsible for creating and building a digital version of these or some other 19th-century materials. Their self-discovery often leads to inspired learning -- that's the goal.

But, report please?

Such great responses deserved

Such great responses deserved a quicker reply than this, so my apologies. Roger, your project sending students into the archive sounds exciting. What seems particularly interesting about your students’ posters and Kathy’s ideas about students creating digital resources is the idea that students are giving back to and participating a larger community of scholars. It seems that students sometimes find it difficult or frustrating to spend so much time crafting essays that will only be read by their professors. Reframing assignments so that it is clear that they will be read in a larger context and by a wider audience could imbue student work with new significance.

My own goals for the rare book tour I gave were slightly different. The students were not working with the materials they were being shown. (Indeed, since there are digital images of the Christabel holograph, one cannot simply request to see the original out of curiosity.) Instead, one of the goals was to get students to think beyond the context of the Norton Anthology. One can attempt to describe how books were made differently than they are today, for example. However, nothing seems to do the job quite as well as showing students primary materials.

In the end, we reserved a seminar room at the library and placed all the materials open on the table. It was a bit like Christmas. When students arrived they had a few minutes to walk around and look at the volumes, but then I led a brief “tour” of the books. I described why they were important or exciting. For example, the library has a copy of The Literary Souvenir for 1826 that was owned by Coleridge, and a letter that he wrote to Alaric Watts on 1 January 1827, which the library also has, indicates that Coleridge anticipated that his daughter would be particularly excited to read the volume. The letters, commonplace books, fair copy manuscripts, and books with marginalia allowed students the opportunity to try deciphering different hands. The most fruitful aspect of the tour was the student questions that arose from looking at the material. I touched on this in my post “Beyond Blake,” but the students were particularly excited to learn about Romantic-era book production. How was paper made? How were books bound? Were illustrations printed on special presses? These questions helped shape the tour and will, I hope, continue to shape the course. Right now I’m in the process of trying to do another tour—this time of the nineteenth-century printing presses at the Robertson Davies Library at Massey College. I’m a Teaching Fellow for the presses, but our tours are often focused on graduate courses. Part of the problem with undergraduate courses is that they are often so large, making class fieldtrips to small spaces difficult.

Roger, I am curious to know how many students were in your course. It would seem that assigning archival projects would be difficult with a large lecture course. The Romanticism that I took to the E.J. Pratt Library is quite large—80 students. Since we can’t have 80 students in the rare book room at the same time, we made the library visit optional. Only those students particularly keen to see the collections at the E.J. Pratt library chose to attend. We’re trying to work out a similar system for visiting the presses at Massey College, but the number of students does present a real problem.

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