Blog Post

American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies: Annual Meeting in Vancouver

This week, I spent a wonderful four days in the beautiful city of Vancouver learning about all things eighteenth century... it was a great way to learn about some of the amazingly innovative teaching methods that faculty and graduate students are using to teach historical literature.

A few highlights:

  • 18thConnect, the groundbreaking resource I described in an earlier post (, has some exciting new features in the works.  18thConnect is committed to creating open-source resources for eighteenth-century studies that will preserve high-quality digital archives in a fully-searchable, open-access form.  By creating an OCR engine specific to eighteenth-century typescript (with the infamous "long s") and partnering with GALE to access the 182,000 items on Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO), 18thConnect is paving the way for open-source research.  Soon, 18thConnect will also be a leader in crowd-sourced research.  Laura Mandell shared new opportunities within 18thConnect for publishing peer-reviewed digital projects.  In addition to funded workshops and fellowships for faculty in creating an electronic edition of a text, 18thConnect is also working to create a group tool, so that groups of students, for instance, could collaboratively annotate, edit, discuss, and correct texts in the database.  Corrections are reviewed by scholarly editors, and contributors receive a TMI encoded and plain text file from GALE, which can also publish a print-on-demand print version.  WOW!


  • Elizabeth Goodhue, a PhD candidate at UCLA affiliated with the Center for Community Learning, shares my interest in public scholarship, and we met last fall at the Imagining America conference.  Reuniting at two different panel sessions, Elizabeth and I had an opportunity to talk at length about the intersection between public scholarship and digital humanities (as, in popular jargon, "high-impact learning practices" that rely on experiential, student-initiated participatory learning).  Elizabeth is working on a number of engaged learning projects, including a "Documenting Urban Life" project that asks students to create documentaries of oral histories about Los Angeles.  However, the most interesting part of Elizabeth's work in documentary and public scholarship is the way that she links it with literary history. Elizabeth explained that activist scholarship is easier to justify the closer you get to social science, but it's also harder to avoid partisan politics.  On the other hand, working in eighteenth-century studies (whose cult of sensibility, I have noted in the past, is the opposite of social justice) allows engaged learning projects that are neither politically charged nor variations of the alternative spring break.  For Elizabeth, service learning is an application-based way to challenge students to think critically about what it means to do community-based work. Elizabeth uses William Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience" to talk about telling someone else's story for them: when does it help disenfranchised voices to be heard, and when does it exploit these voices?  In other courses, Elizabeth puts Godwin's rhetoric on trial, quite literally, to teach argumentative speaking and writing.  Students research whether Godwin's depiction of prison life in Caleb Williams, for instance, is historically accurate, whether his favorable portrayal of outlaws is a good thing considering his contemporary political climate, or whether his technique of exaggeration is effective according to contemporary reviews of the novel, and then they make a case for it.  This combination of critical and creative thinking to give texts meaningful critical contexts is a powerful way to learn both argumentation and historical literature.  Eighteenth-century literature is markedly embodied, but studying it is increasingly disembodied for our students: Elizabeth's methods re-embody this literature for the twenty-first-century classroom.


  • Apparently there is an eighteenth-century island on Second Life, currently run by folks in Australia--I missed this session, but gleaned enough to know it's worth checking out!


  • Whitman College hosts an annual undergraduate conference, which is a fabulous way to feature student work:  I can imagine a number of ways that digital presentations might capitalize on this model of learning and presentation.  Jack Iverson, a St. Olaf grad (um ya ya!) now at Whitman, teaches a course on "Literary Paris" in which students conduct collaborative digital research projects, creating annotated timelines through Sakai ( as a way to visually map the production, reception, and cultural/political context of a single Paris production.  The research is narrow but deep: one play, one year, one place. 


  • At a poster session on pedagogy and eighteenth-century literature, I learned about a number of fascinating projects, including Peggy Schaller's use of the "Reacting to the Past" games.  With over fifty historically-themed, role-play games, "Reacting to the Past" is definitely worth checking out as a tool to teach both writing and speaking within a historical context: 


  • At the same session, I talked with Sarah McCleave about a course in which students learn about the eighteenth-century by designing and performing a historically-accurate opera, complete with acting, dancing, costumes, stagecraft, and music.  This fascinating team-taught, interdisciplinary course commits one day per week to rehearsals, plus a number of days in which guest specialists give lectures on topics of interest.  Students audition for major roles, and they conduct independent research projects on components of the production, which they record in journals for use in the show.  See


  • Lisa Maruca's "Evaluating Digital Work" panel was one of my favorite sesssions of the conference.  Lisa manages, an online forum for eighteenth-century studies.  The session included riveting presentations by a number of digital humanities rock stars, including Holly Faith Nelson, editor of Digital Defoe.  Holly discussed the way we market digital publications and multi-modal scholarship, and she suggested that providing evidence of peer review, a framework for evaluation, and a "book-like" format can ease the transition.  In contrast, Allison Muri's innovative "Grub Street Project," a searchable interface with maps, text, images, and commentary on eighteenth-century London, offered one example of a digital monograph that does not look anything like a book--and Allison explains that it needs to *not* look like a book to take full advantage of current digital resources.  Laura McGrane shifted the discussion to evaluating undergraduate research.  Collaborating with NITLE (the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education;, Laura asks students to create a small digital archive on a very narrow, very specific topic.  Students learn the rhetoric of argumentation by creating a database that creates both knowledge and assumptions--learning how an archive is both a product and an interpretation of that product, Laura explains, helps students to be honest about the ways other databases both enable and limit knowledge through boundaries of inclusion.  Using hyperstudio, wordpress, pachyderm, and powerpoint, students design archives on topics like "Hermit Literature in American Literature" that includes accounts of hermits and fictional representations of hermits, a collection of texts and images that demonstrate similarities between George III of England and George Washington in early American popular culture, and "Cookbooks: Pre- and Post-American Revolution" that explores what makes recipes "uniquely American."  By creating categories, metadata, and bibliographies, and using visual and multimedia representations, students learn to make an argument through a database, and they learn how design choices have a cognitive impact.  For Laura, evaluation comes down to 1) the argument of the archive, 2) the sophistication of the metadata, 3) the choices for the categories, and 4) the value for other databases. 



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