I teach semester-long classes for undergraduates focusing on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American and transatlantic Anglophone literature, textual studies, and the formation and future of libraries as collections and spaces. You can see some of my recent students’ work through blogs and exhibitions at The Literary Archive and The Transparent Library. I teach in this capacity as a lecturer appointed through the Program in Museums & Society, with a cross-appointment through the English Department; courses are also often listed in offerings for the Writing Seminars.
In my curatorial role, I teach single session classes about and with nineteenth- and twentieth-century rare books and archival materials, with and for Johns Hopkins University faculty who want to address questions about literary composition or publication or reception; the material traces of history; or the challenges and rewards of archival research. Topics range widely. We might examine first and early editions of novels on the syllabus for an English class, or explore the visual culture of the early twentieth century through postcards and sheet music, or analyze the material and textual strategies of different artist books as inspiration for a final project in the Writing Seminars, or compare digital surrogates of nineteenth-century newspapers to print newspapers from the same period.
In January 2014 and again in 2015, I taught an Intersession class with Mary Mashburn and Allison Fisher at the Maryland Institute College of Art on The Art of the Press, using the amazing resources of their letterpress studio and the Globe Poster type collection. Students looked at archival materials and learned about the history of printing, then learned to actually typeset, print, and assemble a short book. You can see the students’ letterpress projects and read their reflections on print and digital culture at Rare Cache Broadcast.
Working with Hopkins students is amazing; they are incredibly hard-working, smart, and eager to take on new challenges. They are always thinking about the connections between their academic pursuits and the outside world. I also love working with adult students, who have so many interesting reasons for continuing their studies and bring fascinating, broad experiences to the classroom. In the fall of 2015, I taught in the AAP Masters in Liberal Arts program, and in the fall of 2016, I taught in the AAP Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
Whatever the occasion–my own class or someone else’s class–teaching with archival materials offers insights unavailable in other ways: as a fully dimensional learning experience, it takes advantage of all of our “affordances” as human beings. Most of us who have spent time with books and other kinds of textual documents, images and image reproductions, and digital media have absorbed certain rules about their interfaces and even underlying structures. Through direct, informed, and self-conscious contact with such artifacts, students realize how much they already know about how to read what Jerome McGann has called “bibliographic codes.” As they gain expertise in the technologies and social histories that have produced these objects, students quickly learn to navigate and combine readings of textual “format” and readings of textual “form” (in the sense we have inherited from the New Critics). Along the way, they often also learn about the hidden networks that sustain authorship, publication, and reading–and which have also worked as exclusionary forces; the labor of collecting, organizing, and preserving cultural heritage materials; and the dilemmas of sustainability on our planet of limited natural resources. In other words, the real-world stakes of our investigations are made more present through archival artifacts that we consider as made things. In my own classes, the insights that we gain are often circulated back into the world through blog posts, digital and physical exhibitions, and presentations: the artifacts become the vehicles for genuine contributions to a broader community.
It takes a lot of work to teach this way. In addition to the “regular” teaching of, say, particular literary texts and thematics, situating these in relation to historical events and secondary criticism, I am also developing a presentation, week after week, of relevant materials: identifying these materials in our collections, matching them to our reading schedule, building activities and assignments around their specific features. In these classes we examine texts from the “inside” and the “outside” simultaneously, so it often feels like I’m collaborating with myself, as teacher and as curator. It requires many difficult choices. The reflexive desire to be comprehensive–to address the connections between this word and that, this novel and another one, this writer and her circle–must be constantly kept in check, even more than you already have to do in a course… because we are not just reading texts, we are also reading drafts, frontispieces, library shelves, and digital surrogates. I have to be very strict with myself about our parameters, when I’d rather be nomadic.
But here’s the catch: the rewards for students (and for me as a teacher) are extraordinary. While it is definitely difficult, it’s also really, really fun.