Teaching the Looong Eighteenth Century

“Teaching the L-o-n-g Eighteenth Century”
2008 EC/ASECS, Georgetown University
Roundtable Remarks

Lisa asked us to think about how we teach long works in our period, and I was struck by the fact that when I first saw the call for papers, I immediately thought of how my students perceive length. I teach at a small, private liberal arts college, with generally lower levels of preparedness; so, very long texts are not par for the course. Further, I teach as a generalist; I regularly teach a survey of world literature, “renaissance” through “enlightenment”–never mind that those terms are heavily weighted Western–that covers work from the 15th to the 18th centuries. So, my survey is very long, indeed. I therefore have two beasts to contend with: a student body for whom a full length play is “long” and a class that, for me, attempts to cover far too much in too short a span. The biggest problem when teaching texts longer than a five pages–and especially five pages of poetry–is that students can become overwhelmed by texts that, in addition to being more than a few pages, are also distant in terms of syntax, difficult to many students to comprehend on a basic level. When we seek to layer comprehension with analysis–the tracing of motifs and images in development of theme, for instance–the longer the text, the more opaque it becomes. With truly long texts, students are often overwhelmed by the sheer size of the thing, and can often not keep track of the fact that an idea is emerging through repetition or pattern.

While i cannot really address the issue of the survey span, I can address the question of length in other areas.. one way I’ve tried to address it is by rethinking the way I approach the survey class. Survey classes ostensibly seek to give students a breadth of exposure, coupled with a sense of historical or cultural context; however, they also require that student write coherently about the literature assigned–they need to look closely at the text. How do we do all this in 14 weeks of world literature? The simple answer is, we can’t; however, we can give students a set of skills useful in developing the kind of detailed, systematic analysis we want to see, and which will serve them well in other contexts.

One tool that is of particular use—and there are others, but I won’t go into them today–is the “word cloud” or “text cloud” technology freely available to Internet users, which our students emphatically are. Anyone know what these are? good… essentially, word clouds take an electronic text, a simple text file often copied and pasted directly into an input box, and visually weight the words used. A word
used ten times will appear larger than a word used only once. The implications of this for studying textual pattern is clear. By giving students these tools, they will, ideally, be able to assert more control over the texts they work with–ultimately rendering them less “lengthy” and “distant” behemoths and more like puzzles that they can, with work, grasp more fully, even in part solve. In conjunction with word trees, another technology freely available for manipulating textual data—and with basic reference sources like thesauri or the OED–text clouds can be a powerful tool of empowerment for students dismayed by apparently unsurmountable, distant, irrelevant texts.

Show: Many eyes on handout

Remarks on even longer texts: Tag crowd, clouding a URL

Close: del.icio.us site, visualization. encourage you to test these resources for yourself, experiment with their utility in lecture, as discussion starters, as part of the reading process itself, a springboard to stimulate more systematic and sophisticated analysis. Ultimately, I see these tools as tools that provide purchase on texts that, for whatever reason, are problematic; and by attending more fully to the details of these or any texts, students become more astute readers of the world they inhabit.

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