Note: A version of this course write-up is published in Teaching the Eighteenth Century: Innovative Course Design, Volume 17.
Like my research, my teaching blends digital and traditional methods in order to make early modern literature and culture accessible, exciting, and relevant for students, while also drawing out the potential of the past to surprise and challenge us. A prime example of this approach is my spring 2018 graduate seminar, “Haunted by History: The Deep Eighteenth Century,” which combined a novel transhistorical and circum-Atlantic set of texts for study with a final project that helped students gain experience with the digital and public humanities. I’m honored that the course has been selected as a winner of the 2019 Innovative Course Design Competition from the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. Below, you’ll find a description of the course aims and structure, and links to download some of my teaching materials; the final website produced by the students is available to view through the digital exhibits portal of the USU Merrill-Cazier Library, home to numerous faculty and staff who were pivotal to the success of the assignment and the course as a whole.
This course took its subtitle from Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead, which famously proposed that scholars attend to the “deep eighteenth century”—an object of study that encompasses the ways that our twenty-first-century world continues to be shaped by events, ideas, and forces set in motion three centuries ago. Accordingly, we began the semester with Hamilton’s America, a PBS documentary about the breakout Broadway musical Hamilton. This hip-hop retelling of the American Revolution and the founding of the Republic meditates on how we mythologize historical figures, how we grapple with the darkest aspects of our history, and how we honor the legacies of our forebears while remaking the world to reflect our own values. Hamilton has given the eighteenth century new prominence in contemporary pop culture, and it therefore formed an ideal point of departure for our semester-long examination of the ways our present is haunted by the ghosts of the past—from distinctively modern forms of scientific inquiry, individual rights, and representative governments, to finance capitalism, colonialism, and slavery.
In the weeks that followed, we read clusters of texts from the long eighteenth century in conversation with responses to those texts that express the ambivalent relationship of the present to the past. We read Aphra Behn’s novella Oroonoko (1688) and Thomas Southerne’s 1696 stage adaptation alongside accounts of Nigerian playwright Biyi Bandele’s 1999 revival, which combined elements of Behn’s and Southerne’s texts. We studied Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe (1719) alongside the Robinsonade The Female American (1767), which reimagines Defoe’s fantasy of colonial power with a half-white, half-Native American woman as its protagonist. We then studied two postcolonial responses to Crusoe’s legacy, Derek Walcott’s poem “Crusoe’s Island” (1965) and J. M. Coetzee’s novel Foe (1986). Students drew a web of productive connections among Oroonoko, The Female American, and Foe as works that highlight the complexity of women’s roles in the colonial project, which led to rich discussions about intersectionality in political movements today.
In the second half of the semester, we continued to build on these discussions of race, gender, and empire as we turned to England’s Scientific Revolution. We read excerpts from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society (1667), and the Philosophical Transactions of the Society, as well as satires and critiques of the “new science” by Samuel Butler (“The Elephant in the Moon,” c.1676) and Margaret Cavendish (The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, 1666). Students were particularly interested in how the tensions manifested in these texts—between basic and applied science, between the valorization of independent research and the need for institutional backing, between expertise and popularization—continue to shape debates today about the role of scientific inquiry in public life. We finished the semester with Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver (2003), a speculative historical novel set in the Restoration that foregrounds the conceptual and material relationships between capitalism and information technology. In addition to these primary texts, the class also engaged with a variety of critical essays by writers ranging from Ian Baucom to Ta-Nehisi Coates to Beth Kowaleski Wallace. These critical essays helped us position our discussions within wider scholarly and popular conversations about the unfinished business of the eighteenth century.
The final course project likewise collapsed past and present, as the class developed an online digital exhibition that wove together literary and cultural sources from USU’s Special Collections and Archives; library databases like Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, Early American Imprints, and 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers; and the public-facing collections of institutions like the British Library. This exhibition, also titled “The Deep Eighteenth Century,” focused on the dual legacy of the period—its potential for both Enlightenment and cruelty—that our own moment has inherited, and with which we still grapple today. Each student was responsible for a different section of the exhibition, based on his or her own research interests. For example, one student examined the cultural violence inflicted on indigenous Americans forced to convert to Christianity, drawing on materials in Special Collections related to the 1863 Bear River Massacre in nearby Idaho and the history of Mormon and Shoshone communities in our region. Another traced the erasure of the Haitian Revolution from popular histories of political Enlightenment and the implications of that erasure for media coverage of events like the 2010 earthquake and the U.S. President’s recent derogatory comments about Haiti. Yet another studied how writers like Mary Astell, Hannah More, and Mary Wollstonecraft articulated the challenges women of the period faced in adhering to gendered standards of appearance and behavior, identifying striking parallels to the ways that many young women today attempt to construct and maintain the illusion of “effortless perfection” on social media sites like Instagram and Facebook. Other exhibits highlighted the rise of pet-keeping as a consumer industry, the representation and commodification of childhood poverty, the emergence of the two-party political system, and the transformation of bees into anthropomorphized symbols of human industry and conflict. Taken together, the seven studies that make up the exhibit reveal how processes set in motion during the eighteenth century continue to shape power relations in the present, and they alert readers to the urgent need to understand this history in order to participate in ongoing conversations about foreign and domestic policy—proving that, as Roach puts it, the eighteenth century “isn’t over yet” (It [University of Michigan Press, 2007], 13).
I found that this project made the past more accessible to the students, none of whom were specialists in eighteenth-century literature. MA candidates preparing to pursue thesis projects and applying for doctoral study gained valuable archival research skills through our consultations with faculty and staff from USU’s Special Collections and Archives. The public-facing nature of the exhibit gave all students an opportunity to share the resources of our land-grand university with the surrounding community, and we reflected together throughout the semester on the role of our institution with respect to our state and region. For that reason, our end-of-semester symposium was open to the public, and several members of the local community not affiliated with the University were in attendance. One member of the class, an educator, also showed the site to his high school students as part of a history lesson.
In addition to enabling students to share their work with the public—a powerful motivator to develop clear, accurate, and polished work—the use of the Omeka platform and the digital nature of the assignment helped to equip students with the media literacy, electronic research skills, and multimodal composition experiences necessary for twenty-first century scholarship and citizenship. It was important to me, however, that the project and the readings not feel like two distinct aspects of the course, but rather like parts of a coherent whole. In the end, I felt that the early clusters of reading successfully modeled the kind of transhistorical thinking I was asking students to practice, while the later readings provided a way into conversations about historical awareness and representation that will be vital for students as they embark on careers in education, academia, publishing, and journalism. When we discussed Neal Stephenson’s strategic use of anachronism in Quicksilver, for instance, students debated the advantages and the dangers of presentism, and they connected these issues to the choices they had to make in curating their digital exhibits for a non-academic audience. What emerged was a compelling discussion about the ethical questions facing the students as they tried to make history engaging for a wider public without erasing its complexity, without pretending to speak for actors silenced in the historical record, and without occluding their own subject positions within social systems that we continue to inhabit even as we attempt to understand and expose them.