For the past few semesters, inspired by Joshua Eyeler’s post on “Teaching with Twitter; or Adventures in Student Engagement,” I’ve had a social media participation component in my classroom. I’ve now used Twitter at all levels, from the freshman writing seminar to the graduate classroom. It’s worked well in all of these settings, but I think I’ve had the most success at the 400-level, with third and fourth year university students studying Victorian literature. The reason for this success, I think, is two-fold. One, third and fourth year students are sophisticated and engaged enough with literature that they get the possibilities of the medium immediately: they use Twitter to respond in real-time to plot developments (there’s a madwoman in the attic!), to comment on versions of Victorian texts that have entered the cultural mainstream (Please sir, can I have some more?), and of course, to raise questions for class discussion. The second reason for this success, I think, is that third and fourth year university students are not yet too worried about formulating identities as professional literary critics on the web, which leaves room for a freewheeling discussion.
* The following is a guest post by Sarah Bull, a Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University *
London. May 5, 1871. Great crowds gather on Holywell Street one Friday afternoon as more than 30 policemen prepare to raid shops reputed to deal in “obscene books, prints, photographs, and other things so vile they cannot for decency’s sake be described” (10).
The army of officers first enters a Mr. Tyler’s premises, at 31 Holywell Street. Tyler’s bookshop connects with several others via communicating doors, like those one might find between 21st century hotel rooms. Holywell Street booksellers are rumoured to use these doors to swindle their customers: they bind lurid divorce-court reports together and dress them up as spicier offerings, selling them “in sealed wrappers [with] questionable covers half exposed to view. When the cover is broken the witling who has made his purchase, and has found the book not what he thought, has no opportunity of quarrelling with the shopman who served him, as he generally passes through a private door into the next shop,” trading places with its proprietor (10).
Now, Tyler uses his private exit for another purpose—escape! He bolts through a series of communicating doors into a house on the Strand. Knowing that the police will not be far behind, he makes for a window and jumps forty feet down, down, down into the street. Severely injured, but with his sense of self-preservation intact, Tyler somehow, amazingly, succeeds in his break for freedom. Undeterred, the officers get on with the business of raiding, and carry “a fearful amount of obscenity” away from the crowd in Holywell street at the end of the day (10).
“Extraordinary Seizure in Holywell Street.”
Nottinghamshire Guardian 12 May 1871: 10.
Gale Newsvault. Accessed 8 February 2015
Anecdotes like this are the reason I’m an academic.
Recently, I was giving a talk on Victorian sensation fiction and I wanted to stress the ways in which this genre emphasizes materiality and the experiential dimension of the body. I linked the genre’s investment in the matter of the body to what some critics have called ‘the material turn.’ Many contemporary critical fields – feminist theory, ecocritism, postcolonial theory, critical posthumanism, and social and cultural geography – have seen a renewed interest in embodiment and the senses. Theorists in these fields frequently engage with phenomenology, referencing and building upon Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of the body as a phenomenal, changing, and lived body that alters as it interacts with an environment to which it both responds and shapes. Yet such an emphasis is also visible in Victorian writing, as critics like William Cohen, in his excellent Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses (2009), have shown. So what many contemporary critics have called the materialist turn is in some senses, a material return.
In 1883 a young woman named Teena Rochfort Smith created a prototype of an experimental edition of Hamlet which, to this day, remains the most visually complex presentation of the play ever attempted. Even present-day digital interfaces such as the Enfolded Hamlet are less ambitious than what Rochfort Smith envisioned, which pushed Victorian typography and printing technology to its limits. Given Hamlet‘s unique complexity within the Shakespeare canon, and Shakespeare’s textual complexity within the larger canon of English literature, Rochfort Smith’s prototype should rank among other great experiments in humanities interface design, including Origen’s Hexapla, the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, Robert Estienne’s 1550 edition of the Greek New Testament, the New Variorum Shakespeare begun by Horace Howard Furness in the 1870s, the BBC Domesday Book project (an experiment, if not a great success), and more recent digital humanities projects such as the Versioning Machine, which visualizes the relationships among variant texts of the same literary work. Although Rochfort Smith’s story is a tragic one—she died very young, and has been remembered mainly as Frederick Furnivall’s mistress—she was nonetheless a proto-digital pioneer in an area that’s booming in the digital humanities today. She accomplished all this as a Victorian woman in a male-dominated field, and she did so by the age of twenty-one.
Along with other Floating Academy bloggers, including Daniel Martin, I’ve just returned from NAVSA 2014 in London, Ontario. It was a wonderful conference as always, and we all owe a huge thanks to Chris Keep and the conference organizers at Western. I realized that I have now been attending NAVSA for ten years. Where did that time go? I attended my first NAVSA as a graduate student and observer back in 2004, when it was at the University of Toronto. As a Canadian, I have to say that it’s great that NAVSA, the North American Victorian Studies Association, is in Canada every three years or so. Little did I know in 2004 that NAVSA was a young organization at the time, founded in 2002. This year, the presidency was handed over from the inimitable Dino Felluga to Marlene Tromp. As I remarked to a grad school friend, we pretty much came of age in the profession as NAVSA did. Now that I’m a few years out of grad school I value NAVSA not only for the intellectual exchange but also as an opportunity to reconnect with colleagues and scholars I’ve met throughout the years. Though, as I noted back in 2012, it’s a big conference, and if you want to make sure you see people it pays to make plans for coffee or dinner in advance!
A few trends that I noticed at this year’s NAVSA were many papers touching on animal studies (including Gillian Beer’s keynote), the great popularity of Dickens (even more so than George Eliot) and the increased presence of social media. But, rather than trying to summarize the whole conference myself, I thought I’d do something different and make a Storify of all the tweets. Enjoy!
One of my Digital Humanities classes is working on a digital archive of A Christmas Carol. In addition to encoding and annotating each stave, they will be creating introductions to the text, to John Leech’s illustrations, and to a few key early 20th-century adaptations (from the first film version (1901), to Edison’s adaptation (1910), and Orson Welles and Lionel Barrymore’s radio play (1939) to a TV version narrated by Vincent Price (1949). I will spare you the rationale for these particular choices (“why no Victorian theatre adaptations?” you ask, to which I say “is there no copyright? Are there no license fees?”) and will zip right along).
I have given many Victorian Studies lectures in Digital Humanities classes. I am a Victorianist by training and passion, and while Digital Humanities classes tend to focus on digital methods and building as a methodology, they rely on a deeply humanist engagement with the material and cultural past. In short, the humanities part of Digital Humanities mandates that DH projects, while D, must be about and through H. This time ‘round, I decided to give the students a contextual lecture about class, the workhouse, and early Victorian childhood, with a little excursus on early-Victorian Christmas traditions (or lack of them—Cratchit and his daughter Martha only get to pick their employers’ pockets, as Scrooge put it, on the 25th of December and not on the day before or after, as they might have 100 years on). Not all my students have a background in Victorian literature and culture, or even in English, but the child Dickens, Tiny Tim, and indeed, even junior Scrooge, make for very sympathetic lecture material, so all went well. Continue reading
The modern form of Hallowe’en isn’t particularly Victorian in its origins (unlike Christmas and Valentines Day), but there’s something very 19th-century about it nonetheless. Any holiday that celebrates ghosts is one that calls attention to the past’s uncanny tendency to manifest itself in the present, like the unquiet dead. Hallowe’en’s aesthetics are thoroughly Victorian, gothic, and pseudo-medieval, drawing our attention backward in time. It’s at this time of year that I’m most reminded how much of our present world, especially architecture and infrastructure, is composed of layers sitting atop what was laid down in the 19th century. For example, my neighbourhood in Toronto has several infamous leaning houses (scroll down at the link), whose foundations are sinking due to a buried creek beneath them, the result of a badly implemented infrastructure project begun in the late 19th century. At Hallowe’en, however, these crooked houses look just right. They’re a reminder that the past has unfinished business with the present, and Hallowe’en is its appointed reckoning day.
In that spirit, I thought I’d write a ghost-themed post about a curious photographic artifact that I recently encountered in my research, in which layers of past images coalesce into a strange apparition. In 1885, one Walter Rogers Furness (the son of Shakespeare Variorum editor Horace Howard Furness) undertook an experiment to reveal Shakespeare’s true face from among the various surviving portraits and sculptures, as well as Shakespeare’s death mask. Furness attempted to do this by taking semi-transparent photographs of all these images of Shakespeare’s face, and then layering them over each other in different combinations to produce a composite. That composite, so the theory went, would reveal the true face behind the representations, channeling the long-dead subject like some photographic Ouija board (another 19th-century new medium, so to speak).