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Digital Natives or Digital Strangers?
Teaching the Eighteenth Century Online, from Ctrl-F to Digital Editions

Allison Muri


The search exercises I have described are broadly applicable to any course in literature or history. What I focus on now are two upper-year courses in which I have used digital resources and online assignments specifically in the context of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century studies. These courses both aimed to encourage students to conduct original research in ECCO, Early English Books Online (EEBO), the Old Bailey Proceedings Online, and other databases, and to actively engage in researching, editing, and publishing their results online.

The first is an Honors seminar in digital editing that I co-taught with my colleague, Dr. Ron Cooley. The seminar was conceived and developed by Professor Cooley at first as a course on editing seventeenth-century texts, which he later developed into one that encouraged students to consider publishing their editions in HTML. With my involvement in the seminar, which extended over two terms, we asked the students to engage with both the practice of scholarly editing and that of HTML markup and interface design for digital editions. The course involved a small group of fourth-year undergraduate students who worked in groups to create two scholarly web-based editions of seventeenth-century texts from EEBO that had not yet been transcribed. Pedagogically, the primary goal of the course was to inspire students to achieve the high standards required of scholarly work intended for publication, something most undergraduates never experience (for a more thorough discussion of this course see Salt, Cooley, and Muri, “Electronic Scholarly Editing”).

Working from digital facsimiles of two short works available through EEBO, members of the seminar were responsible for transcribing, editing and annotating the works, preparing biographical and contextual introductions to them, and compiling comprehensive bibliographies for their editions online. All transcriptions, HTML, style sheets, and essays were uploaded to the Digital Research Center server using Dreamweaver or an ftp client, so that the students could familiarize themselves with working collaboratively online (taking extra precautions not to overwrite one another’s work) as they might in a professional environment. In this process, we explored both general issues of scholarly editing and specific issues involved in transforming printed media into digital formats. HTML and CSS were chosen for markup and design because they provide a very basic introduction to online publishing for students who would be able to use the technical expertise in a variety of professions, as well as for those students who might choose to pursue higher degrees in English and online scholarship.

The workload, as we warned, was heavy, with a substantial assignment every second week. Because the timetable for the class was tight and because they were building on one another’s work, deadlines had to be respected. The students were graded individually on components of the project with 10% of the grade reserved for confidential peer evaluation. The editorial groups started by transcribing, then researching, the documents while they formulated some ideas for interface design. We let them make (and defend) most of the editorial and design decisions on their own, which we talked through extensively in the seminars, but we stepped in often to offer editorial advice and suggestions or to help if there was a particular display or interface feature they wanted to accomplish but did not know how.

The students decided that their editions of Directions for Brewing Malt Liquor (1700) by Edward Whitaker and the anonymous The Eighth Liberal Science: Or a New-Found-Art and Order of Drinking (1650) should attempt to reproduce as closely as possible the original page layout and typography, complete with catchwords, page numbers, and so on. Using CSS and JavaScript they were able to create a single HTML file with a JavaScript to switch from one style sheet for simulating the pages of the material book (Fig 8) to a second style sheet for presenting the text as a single long page (Fig 9).

Please click on the figures below to enlarge.

Fig. 8
The “Page” view in our class’s electronic edition of The Eighth Liberal Science, showing footnote 3 off to the side.

Fig. 9
The “Print” view in our class’s electronic edition of The Eighth Liberal Science. The footnotes link to text at the bottom of the page.

Working with basic HTML offered students the opportunity to produce an original edition, and it also offered undergraduates an introduction to more complex tasks should they pursue more work in this vein. As we have argued elsewhere (Salt, Cooley, Muri), the seriousness with which they tackled editorial and design problems was in part a function of the consciousness of a real audience along with the relative ease of learning Dreamweaver and HTML. The zeal and curiosity with which they pursued such questions as the identity of the printer of The Eighth Liberal Science, cited as “B.A. near the Upper Pump in Grub-street,” or that of “Shr-- Sh--” in the “Satyr on Brandy” appended to Whitaker’s Directions for Brewing, argue against claims such as Carr’s that “we” are “no longer guided toward a deep, personally constructed understanding of the text’s connotations” because of electronic writing.

The last course I will discuss was a graduate seminar devoted to visualizing the cultural and literary topographies or heterotopias of eighteenth-century London. For Foucault, heterotopias are:

real places -- places that do exist . . . which are something like counter-sites . . . in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. (Foucault 24; see also Muri, “The Dunciad”)

Proceeding from this claim: how do you map stories, poetry, the conflicting countersites of a textually constructed space? The course description reads:

For as long as we have made maps, they have represented a compromise between visualizing accurate topographical information and the cultural and textual diversities associated with those spaces. Similarly, literature is rich in imaginative detail about the cityscape, but it is easy, for example, to lose one’s place in the notoriously confusing array of London streets. This course examines the ways in which digital cartography can be a powerful tool to help us understand the dynamics of urban life in eighteenth-century literature. The urban landscape of eighteenth-century London was complex, multi-faceted, and layered by differences such as poverty, wealth, and class; areas of trade, of public discourse, of private family life, and of crime and gentility. In this class we will consider London’s historical, topographical and textual representations. We will examine a variety of texts (novels, essays, poetry, prints), seeking to establish a sense of the topography of eighteenth-century London and to locate its cultural presence in the physical space of the city. To do this, we will conduct close readings of the texts and we will map these spaces in a digital atlas of London.

What was especially successful about this approach was that the students could not rely upon existing scholarship in the same way that they were used to in order to bolster a particular reading of a text: they were forced to draw their own conclusions about what “St. James Park” or “Moorfields” represented to an eighteenth-century reader by, first, finding where that place was on our map (we were using Horwood’s 1799 Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster, the Borough of Southwark, and Parts Adjoining), marking it, finding images of the street and architecture from other views such as Strype’s 1720 volume, researching the place’s contexts, and then explaining in short presentations how history, place, and material culture had been appropriated by the author for his or her (in this class, generally satirical) purposes.

Consider, for example, the conflicting views of topography that we see in Rochester’s “A Ramble in St. James Park” (1680), compared to Strype’s rather more orderly views of the space:

A Ramble in St. James’s Park
-- by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester

Much wine had passed, with grave discourse,
Of who fucks who, and who does worse;
Such as you usually do hear,
From those that diet at the Bear,
When I, who still take care to see,
Drunkenness relieved by lechery;
Went out into Saint James’s Park,
To cool my head and fire my heart:
But though Saint James has the honour on’t,
’Tis consecrate to prick and cunt.
There, by a most incestuous birth;
Strange woods spring from the teeming earth,
For they relate how heretofore,
When ancient Pict began to whore,
Deluded of his assignation
(Jilting it seems was then in fashion),
Poor pensive lover in this place,
Would frig upon his mother’s face;
Whence rows of mandrakes tall did rise,
Whose lewd tops fucked the very skies.
Each imitative branch does twine,
In some loved fold of Aretine.
And nightly now beneath their shade,
Are buggeries, rapes, and incests made
. . .

Please click on the figures below to enlarge.

Fig. 10
St. James Park, Palace, and Square, Pall Mall Street, Picadilly, White Hall, The Strand and Covent Garden. From “A New Plan of the City of London, Westminster and Southwark” in John Strype’s Survey of London (1720). Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Fig. 11
The Prospect of White-Hall from the Park of St. James. From “A New Plan of the City of London, Westminster and Southwark” in John Strype’s Survey of London (1720). Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Fig. 12
St. James House. A bird’s-eye view of St. James’s Palace, the formal gardens, the Mall and St. James’s Park. From “A New Plan of the City of London, Westminster and Southwark” in John Strype’s Survey of London (1720). Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Thus the students began to develop a richer appreciation for the representation of material space in mapping systems represented by Strype and Horwood, and they also imagined spaces in the landscapes of satire and the versions of heterotopia therein. Finally, they imagined the new spaces that it will be possible for them to create in new digital editions and architectures.

This work, in both classes, presented an enormous challenge and, I think, significant rewards for all the students involved. There was real engagement in the process of building and creating their own projects, not as something to be handed in privately and forgotten, but as something they could take pride in as a public work. My hope is that teaching early modern literature and history online creates an environment in which students are encouraged to seek out information actively and critically, to read online texts with sophistication and skill, and, most importantly, to create, whether for public or private reading, their own actively directed reading and writing projects. Google is here, for better or worse, and as humanities scholars, educators, writers, and editors, we have to scrutinize the technologies of online communications carefully. Our students will need to understand them, to improve on them, and to heartily critique them as much as they participate in them. These exercises demonstrate the potential for enriching, deep reading that can be done by students online.

University of Saskatchewan


1. The following list is by no means exhaustive but illustrates some of the best eighteenth-century primary resources and databases (primarily in English) currently available online. Open access resources include 18th Connect (Director Laura Mandell, Associate Director Brad Pasanek); America Founding Era Collection (University of Virginia Press Rotunda Collections); Anatomia 1522–1867 (Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library); ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (ed. Robert Morrissey); The British Book Trade Index (University of Birmingham); David Rumsey Historical Map Collection (Cartography Associates); the English Short Title Catalogue; Images from the History of Medicine (United States National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health); The Lewis Walpole Library Digital Collection (Yale University); London Lives 1690–1800: Crime, Poverty, and Social Policy in the Metropolis (dir. Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker); The National Archives (UK); The Newton Project (dir. Rob Iliffe); The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674–1913 (dir. Clive Emsley, Tim Hitchcock, and Robert Shoemaker); Romantic Circles (ed. Neil Fraistat and Steven E. Jones; technical ed. Laura Mandell); The Spectator Project (Joseph Chaves, General Editor); The Thomas Gray Archive (ed. Alexander Huber); Wellcome Image Collection; The William Blake Archive (ed. Morris Eaves, Robert Essick, and Joseph Viscomi). Commercial resources include Early English Books Online (Chadwyck-Healey); Early Encounters in North America: (Peoples, Cultures, and the Environment) 1534–1860 (ed. Raymond A. Bucko, Michael Edmonds, and Daniel R. Mandell); Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (Gale); Eighteenth-Century Journals (Adam Matthew Digital); Electronic Enlightenment (Oxford University Press); Empire Online (Adam Matthew Digital); LEME, Lexicon of Early Modern English Online (ed. Ian Lancashire); The Making of the Modern World: The Goldsmiths’-Kress Library of Economic Literature 1450-1850 (Gale).

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