On the things I’ve learnt from a few years teaching students how to ‘read’ a digital instantiation of a book is that without some knowledge of the wider context of that digitization – the platform, database, collection, or archive – it can be difficult to understand why the way digitized books look the way they do. This worksheet enables students to begin to learn what’s involved in the digitization of books. In particular, it aims to help students explore the various legal, technological, and economic factors involved in the creation of large-scale digital collections; and also the cultural contexts of representation and access against the hype of universal knowledge. The in-class task, a paper prototype of a digital archive, works particularly well to bring home the difficult choices between sometimes contradictory factors involved in real-life digitizations. The session is part of a second-year undergraduate module entitled ‘Literature and Digital Culture’, following on from discussions in previous weeks about the digital medium, the digital divide and information privilege, and the representation of gender, race, sexuality, and intersectionality in Wikipedia articles.
At first, the move from in-person instruction to an online Zoom classroom seemed like it would hit us particularly hard in Dr. Matt Kirschenbaum’s “BookLab: How to Do Things with Books” course. The course focused not only on the theoretical affordances of reading textual materiality, but also on getting our hands dirty with the physical production of material objects: using clay tablets, making paper, playing with a 3-D printed type matrix and punch, collation exercises, bookbinding, letterpress printing. On our last day of class, the same day our university announced its plans for a campus closure, we were all huddled around one of the presses pulling prints of Walt Whitman’s “A Font of Type” on the paper we had made only a few weeks prior.
In Fall of 2019 I took a class at the University of Maryland from Professor Tita Chico entitled “The Postmodern Enlightenment.” In this class we read and compared contemporary works and 18th-century works. As a companion to the Yorgos Lanthimos movie The Favourite, we were assigned to read The Secret History of Queen Zarah of the Zarazians, Being a Looking-Glass for —– ——– in The Kingdom of Albigion by (probably) Mary Delariviere Manley. This satirical roman a clef is an attack on Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough leveled by a woman no less ambitious than Churchill was.
I am happy to share two syllabi prepared for the graduate level “BookLab” course I teach at the University of Maryland. BookLab itself is dedicated book arts studio and press, co-founded by my colleague Kari Kraus and myself, in a converted seminar room on the same floor that houses the English department. It affords access to four tabletop presses, a collection of metal and wood type, materials for bookbinding and papermaking, a 3D printer, and more, as well as a working collection of several hundred scholarly books about books, experimental artist’s books, chapbooks, and other printed matter.
Like so many others, my introduction to remote teaching was an abrupt and rapid process of trial and error. I started as the curator of the University of Florida’s rare book collection in the summer of 2019. I spent the next semester and a half establishing connections with faculty and bringing courses in to do in-person instruction: single sessions per course, often a combination of show and tell and hands-on activities and discussion. In mid-March, as warnings became more dire, I had a group of thirty students coming in to the collections to see a facsimile of the Codex Murúa, a 16th-century Mesoamerican manuscript, and discuss its materiality. The instructor wanted the whole …