GUTENBERG 2.0: Making Books for Everyday Life

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This is the 2nd of our EH course reports in which Bard faculty document the unique pedagogical approaches that they have explored in EH courses. This one comes from Professor Tabetha Ewing of Historical Studies at Bard.

The goals of the course were to: (1) explore the relationship between reading and doing by making books for doing things; (2) further understandings of early-modern historical processes and technological change; (3) increase understandings of how media shapes meaning; (4) use digital tools for advanced methods in historical research; (5) connect the humanities to contemporary public life. Practice was at the center of the course design. First, we were to study practice in the how-to manuals of the early-modern period with an eye to learning early-modern techniques of whatever variety and print media technology. Secondly, students were to engage in original, book history-related practices, such as translations, print-making, and book fabrication in their final projects. The practice-rich components to the course curriculum included: a visit to Sussman special collections in Stevenson Library, where students worked hands-on with a variety of antiquarian books, including an edition of Diderot & d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, the centerpiece of the course; consultation of the French- and English-language digital editions of the Encyclopédie (University of Chicago and University of Michigan projects); a visit to Lothar Osterburg’s print making studio where the history of engravings and etchings was explained and demonstrated, with students getting some hands-on on the equipment.

Intermediate Assignments and Outcomes.
“Words in Motion,” the first assignment, had students creating entries in a digital Glossary that traced particular words/concepts over time and space, following the work of that title by Carol Gluck and Anna Tsing. It led to a number of student entries that showed how language and meaning might be historicized (beyond etymology, beyond context) as a product of cultural contact, often violent confrontation, tracing a word’s travels with the movements of people and product across the globe. Their entries indicate that the students successfully re-thought the supposedly indelible link between language and nation by looking at transnational linguistic developments and the resultant, productive décalage in meaning of particular words. By insisting on the material conditions for the transposition of language, the course successfully challenged traditional top-down language theories, persistent despite the abundance of research (often very technical) on language in social context.

“Timelines,” the second major assignment was based on a creative reading of Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg’s history of the timeline, which itself considered the changing ways history has been visualized. By designing their own timelines focused specifically on the history of the book, students were able to contain the vast amount of data from the diverse assigned readings but also to consider who and what mattered in this history while representing what was memorable or what could not be remembered, depending on how they conceived of the timeline’s purpose. Some students focused on major, named historical actors or anonymous collective subjects or on technological processes or on material production and cost (e.g., paper, ink), and environmental circumstances. Combining abstraction, practicality, and sometimes beauty, each individual student’s timeline articulated an informed theory of history that got at the heart of the liberal arts endeavor.

At the center of the course, we studied Diderot & d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie project, as a quintessence of book history. Itself a translation project (from the English, Chambers’ Cyclopaedia), students worked with the Encyclopédie as a dictionary affixing meaning to word; an encyclopedia aiming for global inclusivity as it elaborates on concepts, materials, and practices; its articles’ cross-listings implying, analytically, the limitations of mapping words onto things. We used Robert Darnton’s work to study its commercial production and as a political enterprise that through censorship and piracy crossed borders, lending it piquancy for contributing writers and readers. We gave several weeks’ focus to diagrams, the plates in the Encyclopédie. This section of the course provoked some of the most considered thinking on what it means to be human, on seeing, reading, interpreting, and teaching; on image, information, reader, practitioner, artist, and engraver. Here, we followed the works of labor historian William Sewell, literary and visual arts scholar John Bender, and art historian Michael Marrinan. Stevenson Reference Librarian Helene Tieger presented the beautiful dedicated space for the Sussman collection to my class. The materiality of the object is only apprehensible through direct contact with the volumes. The thrill of turning old pages proved to be an unparalleled inspiration to the students in their fantastic final projects. Even the students who do not read French used this to their advantage is seeing aspects of the form that escaped students who were busy comparing content in the various editions available to us.

Readings on the history of print and the fabrication of books, especially medieval to early-modern transformations, fascinated the students. Inspired by Michel de Certeau and Roger Chartier, the reader to on a certain ascendance, as co-creators of the text’s meaning, through unique priorities and modalities of reading, annotating, circulating, and so on. Also, the producers of books expanded beyond the author to printers, their journeymen and apprentices, pirates, plagiarists, salon critics, censors, painters and engravers (not only those whose work was included in books but those whose works represented books, c.f., Dror Wahrman’s Mr Collier’s Letter Racks). Students’ increasingly reflexive use of the more sophisticated concepts of the readings along with the basic facts of this history were signs that they had acquired the assigned material in a useable way. On their own, several students came to focus on how the early-modern individual saw the book as a source of widely-circulated, technical information useable to develop new technologies of the self or change old ones. This became apparent in the Final Exams and Final Projects. Here I would note in particularly one student’s work on early-modern, popular anatomy books and another student’s consideration of how printed collections of correspondence and epistolary novels influenced letter-writing manuals (and vice-versa).

Some students were interested in the incertitude and de-centering of authority supposedly accomplished by the mass-production of print. While to previous generations of students (early Internet days), freedom appeared to originate in the Protestant and print revolutions, for this generation, uncertainty seems an ambiguous or even unhappy consequences of those revolutions. Some students were interested in the technologies of the book that were seemingly closer to the human, non-mechanized forms for the reproduction of text and image. Several Final Projects, for example, took up the subjects of handwriting and letter-writing. One project, focused on the humble, labor-intensive shoe-making, discovers that the early-modern shoe-maker’s shop was a significant site for the production of verse and explores why that was.

The Research Bibliography student used key full-text databases for the early-modern period to identify primary sources/how-to manuals on the subject of their Final Project. They used digital resources to consider how the book was transformed from scroll to codex to digital form and from paper to screen in ways that would inform their final projects.