John R. Iverson and Diane Duffrin Kelley
THE GROUP project assembled here for Digital Defoe: Studies in Defoe & His Contemporaries was originally part of an initiative generated in the context of the annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS). Beginning with the 2009 meeting, held in Richmond, Virginia, each year we have organized a poster session devoted to "Teaching the Eighteenth Century," with the goal of promoting active, informal conversations focused on this important aspect of our professional lives. Taking inspiration from the format more commonly used by our colleagues in the social and natural sciences, we believed that poster presentations might facilitate pedagogical discussions, providing both a quick overview of the material at hand and facilitating more in-depth exchanges, as common interests and chance might dictate. And in this, we have not been disappointed. For the past three years — for those of us involved — the poster sessions have become a highlight of the meeting, a chance to reflect on our own teaching goals and the ways we articulate them, an opportunity to share ideas and materials with colleagues, and a confirmation that the eighteenth century does indeed have vital importance as a component of our collective instructional endeavors.
It might be asked why we felt a poster session would be a positive addition to the ASECS meeting.1 After all, pedagogical issues were already a significant part of the annual agenda, in some years generating several distinct sessions. But it was our feeling that even more might be done in this direction and that an important contingent of ASECS members might be interested in participating in a discussion of pedagogy, if a more flexible, less onerous mode of presentation could be implemented. Typically, in earlier years, pedagogical sessions were structured as panels of formal papers or as round-table discussions, sometimes with a rather narrow focus. And the "Innovative Course Design" sessions, which have a long and honorable history extending back some twenty years, require an involved and competitive proposal process. Therefore, to allow for a greater number of participants, to suit a broader range of approaches, and to facilitate discussions that would grant conference attendees a chance to share and build upon their own classroom experiences, the idea of the poster session was born. The description of the 2009 session included this rationale:
The session will call for participants to create posters that present a course or one portion of a course focusing on the eighteenth century. Participants will be encouraged to provide a mechanism for sharing the information they present, either in the form of photocopies for distribution or in the form of subsequent electronic communication. This session should be attractive to colleagues who are under institutional pressure to provide evidence of their engagement in professional and pedagogical development. It will also highlight one of the main activities of many ASECS members.
From the outset, the sessions were thus defined in terms intended to accommodate the needs and interests of a broad range of potential participants. We were fortunate, as well, that the poster session has been treated officially as a complement to other conference sessions; presenters are able to propose papers for inclusion in traditional sessions in addition to participating in the poster session, thus avoiding the problem of forcing ASECS members to choose between teaching and research.
In practice, the sessions have more than fulfilled our original vision, creating an open space for stimulating exchange. Participants have represented a range of fields, including English and French literature, art history, theater and opera. The subject matter has covered horror stories, public scandal, sexuality, film adaptation, exploration, and art criticism. Presentations have addressed whole courses, pieces of courses, and substantive assignments, in addition to assessment methods and other curricular matters. The posters themselves have also conveyed a diversity of approaches, ranging from large-dimension charts on glossy paper to assemblages of standard-sized print-outs and collages composed of course descriptions, syllabi, reading lists, assignment write-ups, and photographs of students in action. Typically, to provide a quick orientation to the session, we have asked the participants to give a brief overview of their materials, leaving the remaining time open for browsing and individual contacts. Conversations have ranged from questions about overall course conception to the effectiveness of individual readings and assignments, approaches for guiding student research, and the logistical challenges of sustaining course projects over an extended period of time. As an added benefit, the posters are left on display for the duration of the conference. Thus, rather than having only one opportunity to attend a session on course design that may overlap with several other panels of interest, conference attendees can peruse the posters at their leisure and pick up syllabi and business cards or other complementary materials. It is not unusual for participants to make connections electronically with other faculty well after the conference has ended. If one of the major benefits for many of us in attending a professional conference is a sense of renewal and excitement as we return to our everyday lives, the poster sessions have more than earned their keep.
One surprising development in the three years of poster sessions has been the emergence of two dominant trends in the presentations. The first is that many of the presenters have highlighted the variety of ways in which eighteenth-century studies are currently being redefined and resituated. In the area of course design, this means that eighteenth-century material frequently finds its way into courses that are not strictly defined by temporal bounds or that explicitly adopt a theoretical or comparative perspective. In some instances, this type of move is dictated by institutional constraints — the need to contribute to a first-year general studies program, for example, or the fact that some of us teach in institutions that are too small to sustain a full array of eighteenth-century courses per se. But other considerations also lead in this direction — a desire to develop interdisciplinary connections, to cultivate critical thinking skills in new ways, or to challenge more actively the assumptions students might bring to the eighteenth-century classroom.
The second dominant, and perhaps even more significant, trend has been a consistent engagement in many of the poster presentations with a variety of institutional mandates: increased responsibility for assessment, curricular restructuring at the departmental level, moves toward internationalization or globalization, calls for increased levels of collaborative research, or even an emphasis on service learning. In some cases, these concerns have been the primary focus of a presentation; in many other instances, such concerns have emerged in the course of discussion as one of the factors motivating adaptations and revisions in previous teaching practices. More than an opportunity for commiseration, the shared awareness that we have all been obliged to respond to such external factors as we think about teaching the eighteenth century has been a source of empowerment and mutual encouragement. Recognizing that we are not alone in facing such challenges, learning about the creative solutions of our colleagues, and receiving validation regarding the soundness of our own responses, we have emerged with a renewed sense that it is possible to remain faithful to our period of predilection even while embracing broader imperatives that perhaps initially struck us as being invasive or detrimental to our previous pedagogical vision.
In closing, we wish to thank our colleagues who have taken a gamble by participating in this venture. In their presentations here, you will find evidence of the generosity and creativity they have brought to this enterprise and you will benefit from their willingness to reflect publically on their teaching initiatives and to share their course materials. We are confident that new teachers and veterans alike will find food for thought in the approaches presented here.
Whitman College and
University of Puget Sound