Experiential Humanities: Engaging Students in Eighteenth-Century Literature Through A Manuscript Media Lab

Grant program: Teaching and Learning Development Grant (TLDG)

Grant recipient: Leith Davis, Department of English

Project team: Courtenay Connor, research assistant

Timeframe: May 2019 to January 2020

Funding: $5850

Course addressed: ENGL 320 – Studies In Eighteenth-century Literature (1660-1800)

Final report: View Leith Davis' final report (PDF)

Description: In a recent essay entitled “Why Making?” Andrew Griffin explores the process whereby he and fellow colleagues – both faculty members and graduate students – sought to “make” a broadside ballad (from making the paper to performing the ballad) in order to find out more about eighteenth-century culture. As Griffin suggests, instead of deriving knowledge from primary or secondary textual sources, participants “turned instead to our senses, and [ ] put our bodies through the labors that other long-dead bodies have previously performed” (Andrew Griffin, “Why Making?” The Making of a Broadside Ballad http://press.emcimprint.english.ucsb.edu/the-making-of-a-broadside-ballad/why-making).

Based on Griffin’s research, this TLDG project for a course involving “experimental humanities” is designed with the goal of engaging students in and broadening their knowledge of a subject area which is often seen as difficult and remote to them: eighteenth-century literature. The big question we want to test is whether providing students with learning opportunities involving hands-on experiences with three media platforms utilized in the eighteenth century (oral listening and performance; scribal culture; and letterpress printing) will enhance their engagement with and understanding of eighteenth-century literature and culture. We are interested in particular in how the process of “putting . . . bodies through the labors that other long-dead bodies have previously performed” serves to boost four aspects of their engagement: “emotional engagement, physical engagement, cognitive engagement in class, and cognitive engagement out of class” (Burch, et. al., “Student Engagement: Developing a Conceptual Framework and Survey Instrument,” Journal of Education for Business 90, no. 4 [May 19, 2015]: 224–29).

For this project, we will conduct a pilot that will introduce students to one of the above-mentioned media platforms: scribal culture. The project will involve teaching students how to construct paper and quill pens and how to employ eighteenth-century styles of handwriting and letter-writing forms. With the feedback we receive from this pilot project, we will be able to assess what aspects of the experiential learning are successful and determine how to move forward with designing the other two labs in future courses. Research suggests that there is a clear connection between engagement and educational outcomes (S. Christenson, A. L. Reschy, & C. Wylie, eds., Handbook of Research on Student Engagement [New York: Springer, 2017]). This project seeks to boost student engagement and thereby positively impact educational outcomes as well.

Questions addressed:

  • What do students know about the media culture of the eighteenth century?
  • What do students know about scribal culture in the eighteenth century?
  • Which articles do students need to read to understand scribal culture?
  • What materials are needed for a media lab in scribal culture?
  • What are the steps and processes involved in facilitating a media lab in scribal culture?
  • Are other faculty in English and other disciplines interested in using the media lab method?
  • What did the scribal culture lab teach the students about scribal culture?
  • Is the scribal media lab an effective way to increase student engagement with eighteenth-century literature and culture?

Knowledge sharing: There is a cohort of eight faculty members in the Department of English and two in the Department of History who have an interest in the area of Book History. These faculty members will be specifically invited to attend Lab #1, and a general invitation to all Department of English faculty will be extended.

The results of this pilot project will be assessed and presented at the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies meeting in October 2020 in a pedagogical session attended by one of the investigators and the research assistant. We are also planning to co-write a scholarly article on the project with the research assistant included as one of the authors. The research assistant will also be encouraged to present his/her experiences in appropriate venue at SFU (e.g., TLC workshop; graduate student workshop).

Keywords: Experimental Humanities; media change; humanities labs; manuscript culture; eighteenth-century literature; letters; handwriting