[Author’s note: I originally published this post on my HASTAC Scholar’s blog. I added more images to this post.]
It all started with a colleague’s suggestion: Debbie Hollis (Faculty Director and Assoc. Professor in CU’s Special Collections) suggested that I bring my class in for an exhibit in Special Collections. I’d heard of teachers doing this, but I had never done it before. It sounded like a lot of work (and it is!), but I immediately agreed on instinct. I had been wanting to schedule a “field-trip” kind of class that required my students to go somewhere in order to learn something (and thus think about place, access, and other travel- and communication-related issues). Le voilà, the perfect opportunity.
I should add that I’m teaching “Masterpieces of British Literature” for undergraduates at CU-Boulder. Since I’m teaching this Brit Lit survey course, and am simultaneously working on a dissertation focusing on media, romanticism, and travel writing, I decided that we should unify the works in the class loosely around the theme of travel. Works on the syllabus range from the late 14th c. to the 20th c. and include Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, The Tempest (Shakespeare), Zofloya (Dacre), Don Juan (Byron), Frankenstein (M. Shelley), The Time Machine (Wells), Mrs. Dalloway (Woolf), and The Passion (Winterson).
So here we are — yesterday, half of my class came to Special Collections for an exhibit entitled “[Insert Caption Here]: British Travel Writing from Chaucer to Wells.” [Note: that title didn’t exist yesterday – thank you, blog-in-process, for giving me my exhibit title.] Fifteen students arrived, put their backpacks, food, and drink away, grabbed notebooks and pencils, and listened to me and my amazing colleague, Assistant Professor and Rare Book Cataloger James P. Ascher, introduce the exhibit. The other half of the class will attend the exhibit on Thursday.
The argument that I want the exhibit to make is that travel writing (and texts about how writing travels) is a complex macro-genre that contains constellations of sub-genres and media within it, such as fiction, poetry, maps, guidebooks, illustrations, children’s lit, epistles, and much more. Travel writing, broadly speaking, asks a reader to do more than just “read” a text: the reader often becomes a user and “interfaces” with a work in ways that differ greatly from how she would interface with other kinds of works, like novels.
In a 25-minute introduction, James and I used select pieces across the exhibit–which contained about 40 pieces total–to highlight the theme for the class. I started in the 18th- and 19th-century portion of the exhibit with a beautiful, small 19th-century flower-book called Flora and Thalia (1835) edited by “A Lady.”
It’s a polyvocal, multi-genre edited collection that epitomizes my point about the mixed-genre nature of travel writing by including captions that describe British flowers, hand-painted illustrations of the flowers, and collected poems on each flower by recognizable poets as well as a few originals presumably written by the anonymous editor. The book on the whole suggests that its reader go out, collect, and identify British plants and flowers. I moved from Flora and Thalia to William Gilpin’s 18th-century book Three Essays (1792) on picturesque travel, writing, and drawing, and showed that in conjunction with his Remarks on Forest Scenery (1791, 2 vols.) that displays beautiful examples of picturesque drawings created with a Claude Mirror. So with Gilpin, the essays demonstrate theory and teaching the reader how to “do” picturesque travel, and Remarks demonstrates a product of picturesque travel, writing, and drawing. (Romantic paint-by-number? Sortof.) I also showed a children’s book called Enigmas: Historical and Geographical (1834) by Elizabeth Hitchner that uses riddles about travel, history, and place to teach geography, as well as a facsimile of a letter written by Lord Byron dated April 27, 1819, that is a request for corrections in the paper Galignani’s Messenger. The letter shows how writing traveled by correspondence in the 19th century. Finally, I showed Valperga(1823), a serial novel written by Mary Shelley, in three volumes to ask: is this one book or is it three books? And then I explained how a 19th-century circulating library probably would have considered it to be three books, and talked about how fiction circulated among readers through these early for-profit libraries.
I know my portion of the program far better than I know James’ (he introduced the Chaucer table and the James Cook table), but here’s a shot at it. James led the class to the Chaucer table (we had a Chaucer table, a James Cook table, and 3 other tables with an array of 18th and 19th c. texts grouped by theme and also for, well, inviting presentation :). My goal with the Chaucer table was to show how writing and text travel and evolve through editions over time. James tells the students that you could fill the entire room with just editions of Chaucer (I’ve seen it! It’s a Chaucer explosion.), but we’ve selected just a few works that are in dialogue with one another over a long history, including the Ellesmere facsimile (15th century), John Urry’s edition (1721), Thomas Tyrwhitt’s edition (1798), and finally The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales with rorschach test-like screen designs by Ronald King (1978).
Next, we headed to the Cook table, which was nothing if not a feat of masterful showmanship. (Who doesn’t like huge books full of adventure illustrations?)
James (Ascher) loaded the table with different versions of the same volumes on James Cook’s voyages, so that we could compare how the same illustration or map was interpreted and edited in different copies. These include A voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1784) vols 1-3 (with doubles of vols 1-2); An Account of the voyages undertaken . . . in the Southern hemisphere (1773) vols 1-3 (doubles of all); and A Voyage toward the South Pole (1777) (with volume doubles).
The tour of the collection ended around a small table with two objects on it: a 1794 map of South America drawn by John Russell lying flat, and next to it, a laptop. The laptop was preloaded with an online collection of Russell’s lunar drawings. We concluded with a discussion of how travel writing so often involves images in interesting ways, and requires readers to “read” images and interpret graphic as well as textual narratives.
The Caption-Writing Assignment
Following the short tour of the exhibit, I introduced the caption-writing assignment, co-created by myself and James, for which students had about 50 minutes to work on in class.The goal of this assignment is to help students interact closely with a single object in the exhibit — any object they fancy — and then write a caption about it that would be useful for someone coming to see the object in Special Collections for the first time. These captions will be used to create a digital exhibit and will require thinking about the challenge of digital texts, metadata really, attempting to describe or represent physical objects. Here’s a draft of the assignment that I gave to my students in a 1-page worksheet. Please feel free to suggest improvements —
British Travel Writing: The Exhibit & Your Caption
Select an object in this Special Collections exhibit on travel. Your job is to use this worksheet in class today, with your object, to write a useful caption for this object in 300 words or less. You will post your completed, polished caption to your blog by midnight on Friday 9/30 (this Friday). Note that if you need extra time with your object for research, Special Collections is open from 1-5pm, Thursdays and Fridays. This assignment counts for both a quiz grade and blog #6. Furthermore, if you create a caption that is correct, succinct, and helps a new viewer understand the object, your caption will be included in a collection that will be published online. (Huzzah!)
Part I – Identification
Title [if long, abbreviate]:
Place of publication:
Year of publication:
Number and type of physical items that comprise this work:
Part II – Description
Take notes on and begin writing your description here and on the back of this worksheet. The description must satisfy the following 4 criteria in a concise but informative manner:
1. It must bring to mind the original.
2. It answers the question: What would this object do to its original audience’s conception of place or travel?
3. It answers the question: How does this object put text and image in dialogue?
4. It names at least one interesting detail about this object.
[end of worksheet]
Students’ captions (1st draft) are due on Friday, so the results are not in yet. I will blog about the outcome of the exhibit and caption exercise after I have a chance to process, comment on, and grade the captions they came up with. I also need to design the online caption exhibit — I’m gunning for Special Collections to host it on its website.
However, from the first class’s behavior in the research room with their objects, I can say with certainty that they learned from their objects and from the process of trying to research for their caption. The most frequent questions were:
1. How to distinguish the publisher from the bookseller, where both were noted.
2. How to find the publication year, which was often in roman numerals and therefore difficult to identify.
3. What do we mean by “the original”? — This is a question that I struggled to answer at the time, and I settled provisionally on the idea that the “original” was the object that students interacted with in the exhibit. This needs more thought! Any ideas?
4. If there are no images in the work, only text, how do you think about the dialogue between text and image? –> To this, I suggested that students look at typeface, marginalia and “white space,” kerning and leading (space between lines), the title page, and characters that are particular to certain time periods, such as the “long s.”
Looking forward to tomorrow’s class and our last exhibit day, and to reading my students’ captions this weekend.