Earthworms, Thomas Hardy, and Touch as Knowledge

I’m teaching a upper-level undergraduate Victorian literature class this term that focuses on bodies, ghosts, and technologies. Typically in a class like this I would assign a number of Victorian texts as well as critical articles. While I picked some great articles for the students to read alongside Wuthering Heights, Lady Audley’s Secret, A Laodicean, Dracula, The Turn of the Screw, and In the Cage, as I put the syllabus together, I realized that I also wanted my students to be aware of what Victorianists were researching right now. As Moscow, Idaho (my new home) isn’t exactly the center of Victorian studies in the US, I opted to have students listen to lectures recorded for the London Nineteenth-Century Seminar, posted on the website of the Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies.

They listened to Sue Zemka’s talk “Prosthetic Hands and Phantom Limbs,” (Thursday 28 May 2015) and Anna Henchman’s “Darwin’s Earthworms and the Sense of Touch” (Wednesday 11 March 2015). Both talks connected to our reading but also presented interesting experiments in listening without any visual cues. We all admitted that it was more challenging to stay focused listening rather than reading. It was also a bit tricky following all of Sue Zemka’s lecture as she used so many images to explain the history of artificial limbs (if I do this next year, I’d show students some of the images she refers to before they listen to the lecture rather than after). Anna Henchman’s talk was also hard to listen to at times because there were a few sound issues and many people coughing in the audience! Despite these challenges, our own experiences nicely related to the talks’ emphasis on senses other than sight. Both focused in the sense of touch in particular; indeed, this seems to be a topic attracting attention from many Victorianists at the moment. Continue reading

The Transatlantic Digital Moonstone

the title page of the Moonstone shows an illustration of a naval scene.

The Moonstone, Harper’s Weekly, 1868-05-23. Image digitized by Melanie Radford, courtesy of Special Collections University of Calgary Library.

In my senior seminar on “The Victorian Bestseller,” we’ve just finished a big class project. When I found out that our Special Collections at the University of Calgary holds both of the periodicals in which Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) was originally serialized–Harper’s Weekly in the U.S. and All the Year Round in the UK–the opportunity to get students into rare books and thinking about the material culture of the text was too good to pass up. In conjunction with Special Collections, the assignment I devised asked each student to take on one of the thirty-two parts The Moonstone originally appeared in, and to compare and contrast its publication in Harper’s and All the Year Round. Students selected and annotated about half a dozen images from the periodicals–which could be anything from advertisements, to illustrations, to the articles and fiction that appeared alongside the novel–to make an argument about the difference the publishing context makes to the reading experience. They then used Omeka to mount a digital exhibit showcasing what they had found in the archives. Our class archive now explores 13 out of 32 parts of the novel, leaving room for another class to try this project again.

The results were fascinating. Students found everything from advertisements for diamonds to articles on the colonies and knots and riddles–important contexts for a mystery story about a gem stolen from India! This project was both more work, and I think more rewarding, than the traditional research essay for all involved. It was only possible because of the tremendous support we had from Annie Murray, Kathryn Ranjit, and Catelynn Sahadath at the University of Calgary Library. Here are a few of my takeaways from the project:

  • This project required a lot more organization on my part as instructor. I started planning with our Head of Special Collections, Annie Murray, back in July, and it took a lot of co-ordination to book time for students in rare books, the digitization studio, and in a special metadata session. By contrast, I just wrote the prompts for our final research paper in an hour yesterday afternoon.
  • The project also took more time. We spent two class sessions on learning about Omeka and metadata, and I held extra office hours in case any technical problems cropped up for the students. Amazingly, other than some images being very slow to load, we didn’t have a lot of technical problems. But this also wasn’t a project where I felt comfortable just handing out the assignment and seeing what students turned in. (Actually, after having spent several years teaching writing, I don’t do that for essays either, but that’s another story!)
  • Having a small class size (in this case thirteen students) was essential to the project’s success given the organizational challenges and demands for time. I haven’t yet figured out how I would do this with a larger class (for example, one of our Victorian literature survey classes that typically have 40 students). Suggestions?
  • Although the technology turned out to be pretty easy for the students to navigate in the end, it was harder for them to complete the project without seeing an example. Many of us know what a successful essay looks like, but what does a successful digital exhibit look like? Hopefully, the next class won’t have this problem, since there are now many successful examples in our class archive!
  • Many students found the project more meaningful than essays they’d written in the past. In our final wrap-up session, several students commented on how this project felt like it meant more since it was for a public audience online, and not just their professor reading it. They even asked me to let them know if they’d “done anything wrong” so that they could fix it. I’ve never had students ask to revise their papers for no extra credit before!
  • I always build in the potential for anonymity when I require digital projects, but almost no one ever takes me up on it. One of the biggest thrills for students was seeing their projects indexed in a Google search, and students were also happy to have me tweet about it.

I want to stress that I still think writing research papers is essential to our discipline–my class is just starting to write their final research papers now. But it was a lot of fun to do something different, and it stretched both me and the students in new ways. Even if they’re not digital, I’d love to hear about assignments you’ve done in the Victorian studies classroom that depart from the traditional term paper. Let me know in the comments!

Bodily Sympathy, Imitation, and Victorian Literature

Disdain and disgust from Darwin's Expression of Emotions...

From Darwin’s Expression of Emotions… From: Wellcome Library, London.

Sympathy is perhaps the most frequently discussed emotion among scholars working in Victorian literature and culture. Many have argued how important notions of sympathy and later empathy were to the development of nineteenth-century subjects and the novel as a genre. Most of these critics understand sympathy as cognitive, or as a kind of mental feeling. In Scenes of Sympathy, for instance, Audrey Jaffe draws from Adam Smith’s 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments when she explains that “sympathy ‘does away’ with bodies in order to produce representations, replacing persons with mental pictures, generalized images of ease and of suffering” (11). Yet for many Victorian thinkers, sympathy did not ‘do away’ with the body. In fact, in Victorian scientific and philosophical writing, as well as in much literature of the period, sympathy was often understood as an affective response that was deeply physiological and embodied. Henry George Atkinson, writing to Harriet Martineau in their collaborative text Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development in 1851 called sympathies between individuals, “the influences of one organized body upon another” (117-18). If scholars working on nineteenth-century literature have been so invested in notions of sympathy as a cognitive and ultimately ethical response to reading, how might we read literary texts alongside a more embodied and potentially more ambiguous understanding of sympathy?

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Teaching the Yellow Nineties Online

Screenshot shows the homepage of the Yellow Nineties Online.

Screenshot of the Yellow Nineties Online.

A couple of years ago, Connie introduced us to The Yellow Nineties Online, a project edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra and Dennis Denisoff at Ryerson University dedicated to producing a TEI-edition of late Victorian periodicals including not only the Yellow Book but also periodicals like the Evergreen and the Pagan Review. Since that post, I’ve used The Yellow Nineties Online in two of my courses this past winter term (we don’t even pretend to call it a spring term here in Calgary!), and I thought it would be a good follow-up to blog about my experiences in the classroom here.

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Victorian Bodies and Disability’s Centrality to Victorian Scholarship

* The following is a guest post by Kylee-Anne Hingston, who recently defended her dissertation on disability and narrative form at the University of Victoria *

In a 2006 article in Victorian Literature and Culture, Julia Miele Rodas lamented that, at that time, “disability [was] still generally regarded as an isolated concern, of literary or cultural significance only insofar as it may serve as a convention or an icon of affect” (378). The article, “Mainstreaming Disability Studies?,” reviewed two seminal works in Victorian disability studies (Martha Stoddard Holmes’s Fictions of Affliction and David Wright’s Mental Disability in Victorian England) and provided an overview of disability studies in the humanities for the journal’s readers. More importantly, however, it encouraged scholars to acknowledge disability’s centrality to Victorian studies and the humanities.

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Stuttering in Victorian Studies

I’ve been working on a book project about Victorian representations and narratives of speech dysfluency for a number of years now, and I’m starting to see a dim shape for the entire project. I think it now has an introduction and a skeleton of chapters, but who knows if I’ll radically blow things up and completely reorganize the thing. As of today, I’m staring, with excitement, at what I hope will be a summer of relatively uninterrupted writing, so I thought I would give our readers a glimpse at some extraneous material from my introduction and early chapters. Basically, some of this material is in the book, some of it isn’t, and some of it is in the book but written in different ways. In a sense, the following paragraphs attempt to outline what I see as some fundamental problems in the ways in which Victorian studies and cultural studies appropriate or misuse metaphors of stuttering and stammering, or dysfluency in general. This is my contribution to thinking about speech dysfluency both within the paradigm of disability studies and more broadly in current critical practices in Victorian studies..   Continue reading

A Pressing Problem and a Vertical Solution

Mr Squercum's office. Image courtesy of The Victorian Web

Mr Squercum’s office. Image courtesy of The Victorian Web

One of Lionel Grimston Fawkes’ engravings for Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel, The Way We Live Now, features Mr. Squercum, a lawyer, lolling in his office. His desktop is a mess of paper, with more sheets affixed with push pins to the office walls, and still others spilling out of pigeonholes. It doesn’t look as though any of the papers on his desk are bound save, perhaps, those in either books or folders of some sort resting atop the pigeonholes. Trollope had, of course, been writing about office life for years, chiefly in sympathy with the much put-upon clerks, those responsible for “the management of little details, the answering of big men’s letters, the quieting of all difficulties” (The Three Clerks 36). Even the most odious office workers, such as Mr. Kissing in The Small House in Allington (1864), get Trollopian compassion (I say this tongue firmly in cheek) for the weight of their work: Kissing’s “hair was always brushed straight up, his eyes were always very wide open, and he usually carried a big letter-book with him, keeping in it a certain place with his finger. This book was almost too much for his strength, and he would flop it down, now on this man’s desk and now on that man’s, and in a long career of such floppings had made himself to be very much hated” (545 emphasis added). Continue reading